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How do I get rid of my guilt feelings?

answered 08:06 PM EST, Thu January 02, 2014
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anonymous anonymous
I did some work in the past that I do not feel very good about. I rationalized it in the past because I was just ‘following orders’ and if I didn’t do it someone else would have. It wasn’t my idea to do it I was just acting out someone else’s will. Really I can see know that I was just greedy for the money and willing to turn a blind eye to the consequences. Now I feel really bad about this and I am pretty sure that my work helped to cheat people. I can’t say exactly what I did because I might be admitting to a criminal offense. I can’t shake off my guilt now and it is really bothering me. What should I do now? I tired giving money to charity but it didn’t take my guilt away. I can’t take back what I did but the guilt is killing me.

Penny Bell Says...

Penny Bell P. Bell
Master of Counselling, Grad Dip Counselling, Adv. Dip. Counselling & Family Therapy, MACA
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It sounds as if at the time you resisted taking responsibility of and owning your own actions, but now, in retrospect, you realize that you have done something wrong due to your feelings of guilt. Guilt is a very useful signal that alerts us to the fact that we have done something that has crossed our moral boundary and has compromised or violated our values. When this occurs our conscience kicks in to give us a wake-up call, and the benefit of this is that we are now informed that that is not acceptable behaviour – to us! We can then take any necessary action – apologize to the injured party, make amends, apologize to ourselves, and if we are in a relationship with God, apologize to him, repent, accept forgiveness and continue on our way, equipped with new knowledge about ourselves and our world that helps us to modify our behaviour in the future.

Shakespeare’s plays, in particular “Hamlet” and “Macbeth” explore the theme of guilt and its power to keep us enslaved. Hamlet’s guilt was not enough to keep him from his desire for revenge, and so had little effect on his behaviour. For Macbeth, guilt was unable to pierce his grandiosity, and although it kept him from enjoying his ill-gotten gains, he continued to behave in the same way. For Lady Macbeth, guilt plagued her through her dreams, and eventually brought about her demise by her own hand. Shakespeare’s delight in exploring guilt was born out of his observations of human behaviour, and of himself, and he knew his audience would identify with the way he factored it into his stories as it is a universal human experience.

Being aware of our wrong-doing is actually a very healthy thing. Macbeth’s and Hamlet’s problem was that their consciences weren't working properly, and that made them medieval sociopaths. But Lady MacBeth had a different problem – she was unable to mitigate or expiate her guilt, and it drove her to depression. She became obsessed with her crime until it totally consumed her. Instead of simply repenting and doing whatever was needed to make things right, she let it eat away at her. Sound familiar?

I’d like to now introduce another concept – shame. Guilt tells us we have done something wrong, but shame tells us that because we did that wrong thing, we are wrong. Guilt says there’s something wrong with what I did, shame says there’s something wrong with me, because I’m the kind of person that would do that. Guilt is a state that we can either enter or leave, whereas shame is a belief and an overwhelming feeling of badness about ourselves. Lady Macbeth was experiencing shame along with her guilt, and that is why she became so stuck.

What can we do about our shame? Firstly, it’s not an outward thing, or a behaviour. It’s a belief and a feeling, so it’s on the inside of us. Therefore we cannot perform our way out of it, although we certainly do try to do that. We can think “if I look good on the outside, no-one will know how rotten I am on the inside”. But because the shame is ours and ours alone, this won’t help. The danger then is that we will try to escape our feelings of shame in other ways, for example excessive drinking or substance abuse.

Often the feeling of shame is triggered by an action we carry out that pricks our conscience and produces an awareness of guilt, but in actual fact had its origin in childhood. I’m wondering if this is the case for you. Can you think of a time or times during your childhood when you felt similarly? Try a journaling exercise where you write down any experiences of childhood when you felt guilt and shame – what was said or done and by whom, how you felt, and what it said, in your mind, about you. Sometimes if the shaming messages in our childhood are very strong, we can grow up with the idea that we are bad anyway, so what we do doesn’t really matter. But if our conscience is alive and well, we then suffer the consequences of our behaviour in the form of guilt feelings and subsequent relentless feelings of shame, almost confirming our original thoughts about ourselves that we are no good.

To break this cycle of shame and guilt, first deal with the guilt, as outlined in the first paragraph. Then, address the shame. Shame, even though it seems as if it belongs to us, actually doesn't. It is given to us by others, and is always a lie about us, which we internalize. We can choose to accept and believe the lie, that we are inferior, no good, bad etc, or reject it, and replace it with the truth – what I did was wrong, a mistake, but that doesn't mean I am wrong and a mistake. You may need help working through this, and I suggest that entering into therapy for a period of time would be highly beneficial for you. As well, make an effort not to isolate yourself from friends and family, as their support is vital to your sense of well-being.

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Page last updated Jan 02, 2014

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Penny Bell - Master of Counselling, Grad Dip Counselling, Adv. Dip. Counselling & Family Therapy, MACA
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