Crisis of Conscience

By Stacey Stein from Best Health

Excessive feelings of guilt can eat away at emotional stability and undermine health. Here, some tips to help free your mind.

Crisis of Conscience
Photo: iStock

From skipping the gym to not doing more for ageing parents to missing a deadline at work, the average person may feel bad for a host of reasons on any given day – and that’s just scratching the surface. According to psychologist Guy Winch, the author of Emotional First Aid, studies from the past few decades suggest we experience guilt in many small moments in our daily lives. Winch says those moments can add up to hours a week.

In large doses, he explains, continual guilt is like an “alarm that doesn’t shut off” and can be distracting and demoralising, and even affect our health, due to the stress it generates. “Unresolved guilt or excessive guilt interferes with cognitive functioning, concentration and daily tasks,” Winch adds. “It keeps us from enjoying life.” According to the Mood Disorders Society of Canada, guilt can also be a symptom of depression.

If any of this sounds familiar, it may be time to take proactive measures. Here are some of the most common sources of guilt, and ways to overcome them and build emotional resilience.

The scenario
Your mother phones, and when you answer, you’re greeted with the words, “An entire week goes by and I haven’t heard from you!”

The effect
Social guilt plagues most of us at one time or another, whether we’re dismayed over having let down family members or feeling bad about a fraught interpersonal interaction.

The fix
Research shows that people who guilt-trip others often aren’t aware of the harm they’re causing. So if your mother happens to make you feel bad about not calling her enough, bring this to her attention, then ask what she’s hoping for and negotiate accordingly. Winch also recommends assessing the scale of your social remorse. “Ask yourself if the amount of guilt you feel is reasonable or not,” he says. If it is, then acknowledge your wrongdoing and take steps to rectify it. If it’s not, remind yourself that you probably did nothing that wrong. Being more self-aware when these feelings start to creep in can help you keep guilt in check.

The scenario
You wake up ready to tackle the day. Suddenly it’s 10pm, and you realise you haven’t accomplished half the things on your to-do list.

The effect
Individual guilt differs from its social counterpart in that it’s triggered when we don’t meet our own expectations. Psychologist Heidi Wiedemann describes this feeling as an internal struggle between what we presume our values to be and how we fail to live up to them. For many of us, she says, especially women, the impulse can be triggered by unrealistic social norms, whether they involve balancing family life and professional goals or maintaining personal fitness.

The fix
To overcome individual guilt, Wiedemann says we should try to be cognisant of any internalised unattainable expectations, then work on self-acceptance and letting go of judgement. We also need to remind ourselves of personal successes. “People don’t think anything of speaking to themselves negatively,” she says, “but when you tell them to start speaking to themselves with compassion, they look at you as though you’re from another planet.”

She also recommends this writing exercise: jot down self-defeating inner dialogue in one column on a page, and then write out any ‘rational retorts’ in another. This will help put your thoughts in perspective and let you practise being kinder to yourself.

The scenario
It’s 5pm and you’re eager to leave the office. You head for the stairs but notice your colleagues are still at their computers, then contemplate heading back to your desk.

The effect
The workplace is fertile ground for the guilt-prone. Workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman says she’s seen a lot of cases where employees feel very guilty about making mistakes at work. “When you have perfectionist tendencies, the guilt can be quite paralysing,” she says. If you’re double-checking your work or second-guessing decisions at the office, productivity and creativity suffer.

The fix
Unexamined guilt can lead us to make bad decisions, but reflecting on why we’re struggling with these feelings can help solve problems, says Newman. Instead of fretting about leaving work at 5pm, she advises asking your supervisor if there’s any obligation to stay late, even if you’ve completed your work for the day. If that isn’t required, any guilty feelings should be alleviated; and if the expectation is to use that time to tackle new projects, then you can adjust your own behaviour accordingly.

“When you have the feeling that you’re disappointing people or letting them down, you have to find out whether it’s true,” says Newman. “Guilt is a flag that leads you to the question ‘What’s really going on here?’” she says. Once you have the conversation with a loved one, your boss or even yourself, you can learn to get rid of the guilt.

Best Health magazine (November/December, 2015) © 2015


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