Toxic Guilt, Healthy Guilt
Guilt is an important feeling. It is the appropriate feeling to have when we have deliberately done something hurtful or harmful to others. People who can harm others without any feelings of guilt or remorse were formerly called sociopaths or psychopathic personalities, and are now defined as suffering from Anti-social Personality Disorder. Anti-social Personality Disorder is a severe disorder that includes – along with many other symptoms – the lack of a conscience. Without a conscience, people can deliberately harm others without ever feeling guilt or remorse.
While it is very important to feel guilt at deliberately harming others, many people feel toxic guilt. Toxic guilt is inappropriate guilt – guilt that comes from self-judgments regarding having done something wrong when is no actual wrongdoing.
For example Fran, one of my clients, was exploring the guilt she feels when she speaks with her mother.
“No matter what I say, my mother always seems to feel hurt and then I feel guilty at hurting her. Sometimes I wish I never had to talk with my mother. I don’t want to not have a relationship with her, but I hate feeling guilty all the time.”
Fran’s feelings of guilt are not coming from actually inflicting harm on her mother. Her feelings are coming from the self-judgment that she absorbed from her mother’s judgments of her. Her guilt is coming from the fact that she is telling herself she is doing something wrong. Fran falsely believes that if someone feels hurt, it must be her fault.
Fran’s mother taught Fran that when her mother was feeling hurt, it was Fran’s fault. Now Fran feels guilty whenever someone she is involved with feels hurt or angry. However, it is not the other person’s feelings, nor their blame, anger or judgment toward her that is causing Fran to feel guilty. It is her own self-judgment that is causing her feelings of guilt. If Fran did not believe that she was responsible for causing others’ feelings, she would not feel guilty when her mother or others blamed her for their feelings.
Fran actually knows that she is not doing anything wrong, yet she continues to judge herself whenever her mother or others are hurt or upset. There is a very good reason for this.
Fran WANTS to believe that she is causing others’ feelings because it gives her a sense of control over how others feel about her. The wounded part of her that wants to control how others feel about her reasons that, “If I can cause others to be hurt or upset, I can also cause them to be loving and accepting. If I just do things right, then I can control how others feel about me and treat me.” This belief in control gives Fran the illusion of safety. She does not want to know that she is not in control over how others feel about her and treat her. She does not want to know that she does not pull the strings on others’ feelings and behavior.
While Fran doesn’t like the feeling of guilt, she is unconsciously willing to go on feeling guilty in order to maintain her illusion of control. If she comes into truth about her lack of control over how others feel about her and treat her, her toxic guilt will disappear. Toxic guilt and an addiction to control go hand and hand.
We all need to be able to feel healthy guilt – the guilt that comes from actual wrongdoing. But toxic guilt is not good for anyone. You can move beyond toxic guilt by understanding that:
* the belief that you can control others feelings and behavior by doing things “right” –>
* leads to self-judgment to control your own behavior to get yourself to do it “right” –>
* which leads to toxic guilt.
The way out of toxic guilt is to:
* fully accept of your lack of control over others feelings and behavior –>
* which leads to a lessening of self-judgment –>
* which leads to a lessening of toxic guilt.
With practice, you can completely eliminate your toxic guilt. It’s all up to you!