Guilt and How It Affects Our Mental Health

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Why do some people get constructive guilt, while others suffer irrational and exaggerated self-blame? Here’s how guilt works, what it is, and how it differs from shame.

Guilt isn’t the most pleasant feeling, but it’s useful for adapting in society. By experiencing embarrassment for an act that is not too sympathetic, we notice when and what our actions hurt the other person, we learn about our partner’s boundaries and needs, we grow sensitivity and attentiveness. So, the mechanism of guilt regulates human relationships of varying degrees of intimacy. It also signals us when we act contrary to our values, when we trample on cornerstone moral principles. These are all examples of how to experience guilt constructively enough.

But there is another kind of guilt, neurotic guilt. The tricky thing is that it’s useless and even destructive. You can be in the grip of such a feeling for years – and feel guilty the whole time, even when in reality, you have been mistreated. For example, you can start feeling it after your friend accuses you of playing the legit Canadian casino online even though there is nothing wrong about it. Karen Horney describes cases when a person believes he deserves nothing but suffering, or expects reproach in advance from anyone who comes into contact with him. 

Constructive Guilt

Constructiveguilt, is related to specific situations and is recognized. In contrast, destructive, or neurotic guilt, isn’t real. It’s formed under the pressure of attitudes and beliefs from the outside, which the person has agreed to without checking with his inner feelings. In such a case he has to live up to the expectations of others in order to avoid a painful sense of his own imperfection.

In this context, guilt is often confused with shame, but these are different forms of anxiety and have different needs. By correctly identifying the emotion, we can understand what is behind it.

How Is Shame Different From Guilt?

The essence of distinctions between them is that a sense of guilt is directed as though outwardly, and the shame lives inside of the person. Guilt occurs at the moment of choice. When we choose one object, we feel guilt over the other.

Shame affects our relationship with ourselves. Although we say we are ashamed in front of friends or colleagues, the view of others is a mirror in which our view of ourselves is reflected. Shame arises when our true self confronts an imagined ideal image of itself and cannot stand the comparison.

Shame may have been shaped by significant figures in the past, especially if they have swayed a person’s self-esteem and superego with unrealistic demands and inappropriate inhibitions.

For example, parents have shooed an emotional child because it’s embarrassing to be noisy. The child perceives numerous “not allowed” as condemnation and rejection. Subsequently, people will continue to live their life with an eye on those around them, including a “false self” – a more viable but unnatural set of qualities that are expected of him or her and that must be met.

The Meaning of Shame and Guilt

By living the guilt adequately, we are ready to act, and that is its constructive function for the psyche. A person doesn’t like what he has done, and he wants to correct the consequences of the act, to compensate for the damage caused to another person.

Shame restrains a person. He feels inappropriate and pathetic, speaks confusedly and inappropriately. It’s extremely difficult to be active in shame. After a heated argument, a person who feels guilty will offer constructive countermeasures. But the person who burns with shame will stand petrified and crimson – and desperately condemn himself.

Guilt and Responsibility

Normal guilt is the experience of responsibility. A person experiences that his actions have made someone in the world feel bad. Perhaps this action was important to him, but hurt the loved one or had undesirable consequences. Since the past cannot be undone, the present and future remain to be undone.

Realizing responsibility for the real fault is an important point. In that case the person will not make excuses for what he has done, but will rather explain the circumstances that prompted him to act that in Best wayss. For example, he will say, “I know I let you down by not lending you the money, but I had my own plans for it.”

Neurotic Guilt

Neurotic guilt is different. It makes one feel like a nasty creature, a stumbling block, an uncatchable villain where there is no reason to be. The person takes responsibility for things he or she had nothing to do with. 

For example, in a couple, one has a withdrawn character. Sometimes he withdraws into himself and bewildered in silence. And the other feels fear, anxiety, or resentment. Secretly he has already decided that he is the cause of his partner’s melancholy mood, and demands either confirmation or refutation from him, which will inevitably lead to a destructive conflict. This is how neurotic guilt works.

Existential Guilt

Existential analysis looks at the phenomenon of guilt differently – through high responsibility not only for one’s actions, but also for one’s inability to act. In refusing to exist intensely, we feel guilty because of an unused life, an unlived life.

The existential philosopher Martin Heidegger spoke of man’s guilt toward himself. Every choice, even the most deliberate one, is a rejection of alternative scenarios. And no matter how concrete a person’s decision is, it still implies that something else, also necessary or important, will be given up.

How Therapy Helps

The therapist helps the client find the root of the guilt, call things by their proper names, and see the childhood experience from a different perspective.

The next step is to react, live through and express the feelings that have arisen in past situations: the fear of losing his mother’s love, or anger at her for not meeting his needs.

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