Guilt is a powerful and complex emotion. On the one hand, it really makes us see ourselves for who we truly are and it might not be as pretty a picture as we might think. On the other hand, it is a feeling of responsibility or remorse for something we have done or have failed to do. It is quite the uncomfortable dichotomy for a feeling.
And yet, despite the discomfort, we cannot diss it away. Guilt usually has positive effects on our behaviour and well-being in the long-term. A certain amount of guilt can help us take restorative actions to make up for our wrongdoings.
In fact, guilt could help us align our future actions with our inner moral compass. According to a 2020 research study led by researcher Daniere, guilt can promote relationship repair and pro-sociality. It found that people can be more lenient towards wrongdoers who display guilt than those who do not. Apparently, experiencing guilt motivated people to repair wrongdoing.
However, pervasive and chronic guilt – when not dealt with – could have far-reaching negative consequences on our mental health and well-being. It could negatively affect our self-esteem, confidence, and interpersonal relationships. For Nitya Dev, 27, food and beverage executive from Gurugram, guilt brought with it self-blame. “Experiencing certain traumatic events gave me a deep-seated feeling of guilt because I blamed myself for everything. I would feel guilty for being who I am, and I always tried to make myself smaller because I felt guilty for taking up space,” she expresses.
Khushi Khandelwal, Mumbai-based counselling psychologist, explains that guilt can often present as an ‘outer covering’, wherein a plethora of other emotions may be masked underneath. “Guilt can cover the objective facts which might help a person see that something wasn’t their fault. It can be suffocating,” she points out. Guilt is like oil that resurfaces over water. No matter how deep the water is, the oil will always find its way above the water, she remarks.
Sometimes, guilt could be downright hard to identify. We might feel guilty, without really knowing it is guilt. Mumbai based, trauma-informed counselling psychologist Absy Sam says, “Guilt can often feel like a heavy feeling. It often comes from a place of ‘I should have’, ‘I must have’,” she says.
Dealing with guilt
Naming the emotion might not be easy, unfortunately. When this is the case, we could start with just letting ourselves feel the full extent of whatever emotion we are going through. Psychologists call this ‘sitting with the emotion’. Sam explains, “Sitting with it is like having an appointment with the emotion and trying to understand what went wrong.”
Khandelwal agrees. She adds that once we acknowledge the guilt, we can try to understand where it might be coming from and whether or not it is masking other emotions.
Dev says that for the longest time, it was hard for her to even acknowledge that she was experiencing guilt. She admits that the more she tried to run away from it, the more power it had over her. “Once I explored this emotion in therapy, it was easier for me to come to terms with it and to untangle it. Slowly, it didn’t hold the same power over me anymore,” she says.
Guilt can indeed be an all-consuming and overpowering emotion. And yet, it teaches us a thing or two about who we really are and who we want to be. Allowing the emotion to unravel, gradually, could help us feel much better eventually. In the end, guilt, as paradoxical as it might seem, can be a catalyst for growth and self-acceptance, so long as we address it compassionately.