Feeling guilty is a universal experience; it plays an important part in our social development and the maintenance of our relationships.
Like any emotion though, it can get out of hand so that it influences us in ways that are costly to us personally. Some people say that guilt is an almost constant presence in their feelings, decisions and behaviour.
When this happens it’s a safe bet that the guilt is serving no useful purpose; it’s chronic, nagging and generally described as unhealthy or toxic guilt.
Guilt is private
One of the unique features of guilt is that it is largely a private exercise. Most emotions provoke a noticeable response, and even if these are fleeting and minimal, they are still visible to others, so they have an idea of what we are feeling.
But with guilt there are no facial expressions or other external signals that give clues to what we are experiencing. We suffer in silence, and when guilt becomes a regular companion, we suffer alone.
In contrast with the private and personal experience that guilt is, it is also a closely linked to our social bonds; when you feel guilt you fear the judgment or reactions of others who matter to you in some way. So guilt isn’t just a feeling, it is also part of our social rituals and behaviour.
This points the way to assuaging unhealthy guilt. In cases where the unhealthy feelings are directly associated with a relationship, you might say that the relationship is part of the problem, but it can also be part of the solution.
Up to a point. While talking it through can help to purge the unwanted feelings, labouring the point with the other person will simply make them feel bad about something they have no control over.
Like it or not, at the end of the day, guilt is a personal matter.
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Baumeister, et al. ‘Guilt: An Interpersonal Approach.’ Psychological Bulletin 115(2), no. Mar 1994 (n.d.): 243–67.
Breggin, Peter R. Guilt, Shame, and Anxiety: Understanding and Overcoming Negative Emotions. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2015.