How to let go of false guilt and take better care of yourself
Today I want to talk about guilt. That uncomfortable little emotion that pops up whenever we don't do what we think we 'should' do!
We all experience it, and many of us have our own combination of unhelpful behaviours we use to deal with it such as comfort eating and drinking, apologising profusely (even when we haven't actually done anything wrong) and forsaking our own feelings and needs for the comfort of others.
So in this article, I'd like us to start getting curious about our guilty feelings, identifying the difference between healthy guilt and false guilt and share with you some ways to move through this tricky emotion with more grace and ease.
What is guilt?
Guilt arises when we feel or believe we have done something wrong. It can actually be a really useful emotion as the discomfort can be a catalyst for making changes and learning from our mistakes.
However, sometimes our definition of 'wrong' is a little bit wonky, and we can end up feeling guilty for things such as taking care of ourselves, having needs of our own, asserting ourselves and expressing a different opinion. This is known as false guilt and is usually the fear of disapproval in disguise.
When we have patterns of people-pleasing, over-functioning and over giving, we are prone to this type of 'false guilt' because our self worth is attached to what we do and how we are perceived by others. Consequently, we feel bad about things we didn't do, couldn't control and that aren't our responsibility (and wonder why life feels so damn hard!).
Exploring our guilty feelings
I remember my first coach highlighting to me during a session the number of times I used the word 'should'. She explained that 'should' isn't necessarily fact or truth, it's usually an opinion (be it ours or someone else's) that we have taken on as a rule or standard for how we live our lives.
A fact is a statement that can be verified. It can be proven to be true through objective evidence. An opinion is a statement that expresses a feeling, an attitude, a value judgement, or a belief. It is a statement that is neither true nor false but it may feel true for some and false for others.
These 'shoulds' form the do's or don'ts we tend to unconsciously live our lives by until we reach a point where a situation becomes uncomfortable enough and we start to question things.
We all have our own inner 'rule book' full of the 'shoulds' we have picked up over the years from a variety of sources:
- How we saw others behave.
- How we saw others treated.
- Our family messaging and belief systems.
- The roles family members took.
- General family dynamics.
- Experiences with authority figures.
- Significant relationships outside of family.
- Cultural and societal messaging.
These rules are the blueprint for how we learned to be to feel safe or ok. So when we go against one of these inner rules or beliefs, we often feel guilt as a way to get us back on track with how we 'should' be. This is a survival mechanism designed to get us doing what we've always done because that is what has been tried and tested and worked in the past.
So if you have learned to be pleasing and prioritise others to feel ok, when you start to behave in ways that could be perceived as displeasing, disappointing or goes against one of your inner beliefs about how you 'should' be, your guilt will try to get you back to your familiar pleasing pattern to feel safe again.
This is why I always tell my clients that guilt is often a good thing when you are trying to change your pleasing behaviour because it means you are doing something different.
It is also why it's so important for you to get curious about your guilty feelings and hold on to your desire to do things differently so you don't keep getting sucked back into pleasing behaviour.
Moving through guilt
The guilt we feel is often unnecessary or disproportionate to the situations we face, so we sometimes need to learn how to introduce logic and perspective (not always easy when we are feeling emotional, I know).
I would like to invite you to start to see your guilt as a sign of change - it means you are veering off-script and trying something new. Rather than trying to get rid of the guilt as quickly as possible, give yourself permission to sit with it for a little while and get curious about it.
Here is some journal prompts you can use to explore your guilt when it arises. Pop them into the notes on your phone or save this article so you can refer to them when you notice those guilty feelings creeping up on you:
- Is it really wrong to [insert action]?
- Is the guilt I'm feeling in response to change (my inner rules, behaviour, what I 'should' do)?
- Do I believe this is wrong or is this someone else's belief?
- Reflecting on the situation, are my feelings proportionate to my actions?
- If someone else I cared about acted in this way, should they feel guilty?
- Did I hurt anyone through my actions? Is there anything I need to apologise for?
- If yes, can I apologise without forsaking or discounting my own needs e.g. I'm so sorry for hurting you AND I needed to say no on this occasion to look after my own mental/physical/emotional wellbeing?
- If no, can you just sit with these uncomfortable feelings and let them pass?
- Does feeling guilt about [insert action] help me to be the healthiest, happiest version of myself?
- How do I benefit from holding on to this guilt? (Maybe you don't have to acknowledge the reality of the situation in some way?)
- Can I tolerate someone being displeased or disappointed with me if I'm doing what's best for my mental, emotional or physical wellbeing?
- How can I be my own best friend and take care of myself right now?
The consequences of false guilt
When we allow ourselves to take responsibility for other peoples problems, unhappiness, anger and suffering, guilt can become a dominant emotion in our lives that keeps us stuck in unfulfilling patterns of people-pleasing, over-functioning and overgiving.
It also becomes really easy for others to (intentionally or unintentionally) manipulate us because pleasing others is how we alleviate our feelings of guilt.
So if you are ready to (start to) stop people-pleasing and free yourself from the expectations of others, a good place to start is by challenging your guilty feelings and giving yourself permission to be responsibly selfish and take care of yourself, meet your own needs and do what's right for you.
It is not wrong to set healthy boundaries, say no, express yourself, have a different opinion, make time for yourself and allow others to experience the consequences of their choices and actions. You deserve more than just living a life of service to others. You matter too.
I'd love to know if this article resonates with you - feel free to message me.
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