Feeling Stuck? Check Your Guilt
In my NYC therapy practice, I see a lot of people, who are stuck, struggling with a strong presence of guilt. Oftentimes, feeling guilty about actions or desires can prevent people from acting on their true and authentic wants. This can leave them in jobs, marriages and other situations that just don’t feel right.
Understanding the roots of this guilt and getting some good perspective from an outside source can help you get unstuck. When you learn from where the guilt originates and realize that it is not always based in current day reality, it frees you up to act on what you really want and desire.
Guilt Is A Relational Emotion
What does it mean to feel guilty? Guilt is a relational emotion; we only feel guilt in relation to others. One can feel sad, for example, because of an event, a life transition or a loss. But when we feel guilty, it is because we feel like we have let someone else down–whether that is real or perceived.
For instance, say a person grows up with the expectation that they act very together and not express negative emotions. They inevitably experience feelings like sadness, anger, or resentment, but they are at a loss for what to do because they were not taught how to express these feelings. They may even experience guilt for simply feeling these things. If the emotions build up and they do express them to a friend, they may feel guilt and shame for breaking this unspoken rule that they were raised with. This guilt has nothing to do with the friend in the current day–their friend could be wholly supportive. Instead, it is the perceived guilt, stemming from the person’s upbringing, that holds them back from fully taking in their friend’s support, leaving them with a whole lot of internal turmoil.
Guilt Is Always Old
Like the previous example, I have learned by talking to patients about the roots of their guilt in therapy that guilt is almost always old. By “old,” I mean it was instilled in them at an early age, usually by their primary caregivers and environment. Guilt often represents the expectations of one’s parents or others close to them growing up. These expectations can range from how they should act in their relationship to what type of career or romantic partner they should pursue.
When we are very small, our parents and direct environment shape us into who we are and teach us who we are in the world in the most fundamental way. This is where we get the roots of our identity and self-esteem. Parental expectations have a huge impact and can influence people to make decisions big and small. It is sometimes less uncomfortable to make a career choice that doesn’t feel right, for example, than disappoint one’s parents and those closest.
Acknowledging Guilt–And Its Roots–Can Help Alleviate It
Being more and more aware of guilt itself can lessen guilt. When guilt moves to the more conscious mind, it gives us the opportunity to actually do something about it. Simply acknowledging, “You are old, guilt! Just because I am feeling you, doesn’t mean you are rooted in the present day reality” can help you be less influenced by guilt and organize your life in the way that is best for you. It is a way to take the power back and regain control over your life.
Therapy can be incredibly helpful in this process because therapy, like guilt, is relational. Therapy can help you understand the roots of your guilt and see with more clarity how it is negatively impacting your internal experience and decision-making. Perhaps most importantly, developing a personal relationship with a therapist means getting close to someone who is not in your family. A therapist is not organized by the same rules and expectations, and will be far more supportive of your wants and desires. When we feel like someone is truly seeing and accepting us fully, it helps give us the motivation and confidence to build the lives we envision for ourselves.