The 'G' Word.
It's one of the most irritating emotions, so powerful that we'll do anything to avoid it and it can haunt us at any age.
If you haven't guessed by now what I'm referring to, let me prolong the suspense. It could be a trait inherited or learnt through modeling the behaviour of our care providers as well as being affected by their sometimes manipulative disciplining strategies. Some people might be the victim of all three and as they will tell you, the combination is lethal. The emotional or cognitive experience I'm tip toeing around here is guilt, our internal barometer of checks and balances, moral and pro social behaviour, and the relentless little voice that reminds us to call our relatives more often as well as stopping us from eating the 65th Maltesers. It's a feeling that's hard to describe; a plethora of 'I should've done something', 'should be doing something', or 'shouldn't have done something'.
Psychologists fascinated by guilt have tried to identify its function in our lives. The first step was to differentiate guilt from shame. Shame is a much more destructive and humiliating emotion and becomes more about who you are rather than what you did. Of course there's a certain degree of overlap between the two but researchers claim that guilt plays a vital role in guiding our social behaviour, while shame breaks us and cripples self confidence. That worried feeling in the pit of our stomach often serves as the force that moves us out of a particular situation or makes up for inappropriate behaviour. According to Jesse Erwin, 'the punitive feeling of guilt may keep you from repeating the same transgressive behaviour in the future, which psychologists call 'withdrawal motivation.' Conversely, some researchers view the function of guilt in a societal context, in that; it keeps people's behaviour in line with the moral standards of their community. This view emphasises a more positive emotional experience and is associated with 'approach motivation.''
If there's a justifiable reason for feeling guilty, such as if you've hurt someone or committed a crime, this emotion invites us to examine consequences, even if there are no external punitive measures. So what we have is an internal judge or referee that may not leave us alone until we've confronted the issue, fixed it and laid it to rest by admitting fault and apologising, for example.
But unfortunately many people walk around, imprisoned by their imaginary cell of should have's which can be exhausting, confusing and bad for their physical and mental health.
Here are some of the 'guilt gremlins' people wrestle with on a daily basis:
Time spent with children
Working and contributing to the household expenses
Should have studied harder in school
Shouldn't raise my voice
Should eat less/exercise more
Being too direct
Staying in touch with family
Taking care of parents
Relationship with in-laws
Spending time with friends
A close emotional cousin of guilt is resentment. If we don't do something, we feel guilty but if we do too much then we might end up feeling resentful. Resentment is failing to forgive or having unrealistic expectations, and guilt is failing to forgive yourself. The main difference here is that resentment is directed outwards while the other is directed inwards.
We also shouldn't mistake feeling worried with guilt. When we're worried about something, it's like a mental reminder, with emotions invested in it, that we need to do something. After we have completed that task, the worry and anxiety usually evaporate till the next time it needs to be repeated. However guilt doesn't evaporate; it looms over us like a contaminated poisonous fume that most people retain in their surrounding rather than finding a window to release it.
So what do we do to win the war with guilt? First, grab all the gremlins and capture everything you feel guilty about on a piece of paper. Next, rate your level of guilt for each. Sometimes when we give a numeric attribution to something, we realise that it's not that important so perhaps we shouldn't invest so much mental energy towards it. If it is important, you need to accept it has happened and learn from it. Once you've done this, you can consider the practical steps you're going to take to rectify it. By that I mean actually deciding if you need to call, send an email, go to the store, pay the bill or whatever it is that's constantly clutching at you. Just worrying about it is not going to make it go away. Finally, guilt can help keep us in line, as long as it's not about doing what we please and then cashing in our moral credits by just feeling guilty afterwards. It should work as a preventative device rather than a punitive one so that it's not a wasted emotion.
Samineh I Shaheem is an author, an assistant professor of psychology, currently lecturing in Dubai, as well as a cross-cultural consultant at HRI. She has studied and worked in different parts of the world, including the USA, Canada, UK, Netherlands, and the UAE. She co hosts a radio program (Psyched Sundays, Voices of Diversity 10-12pm) every Sunday morning on 103.8 FM Dubai Eye discussing the most relevant psychological issues in our community.
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