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457 – Biopsychosocial Impact of Guilt and Strategies for Prevention and Intervention

CEUs are available for this presentation at AllCEUs

Dr. Dawn-Elise Snipes
Executive Director
Podcast Host: Counselor Toolbox, Case Management Toolbox

• Define guilt
• Explore the impact of guilt
• Identify activities to help people deal with guilt
What is it?
• Guilt is anger at yourself, and comes from an Old English word that means “delinquency.” Today Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines it as “feelings of culpability, especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy; self-reproach.”

• Note: Nowhere does it say that guilt is related to things you actually did wrong
What Can Guilt Do?
• Make you become over responsible trying to fix everything to atone for perceived sins
• Make you over-conscientious
• Make you overly sensitive
• Immobilize you and interfere with decision making
• Co-dependency
• Overshadow other feelings
• Mislead you (Shoulda, coulda, woulda)
• Motivate change
• Sometimes guilt is necessary otherwise people would not know how to exercise self-control or have a conscience.
Where does it come from
• Autonomy vs. Shame
• Major Question: “Can I do things myself or am I reliant on the help of others?”
• Will, Efficacy
• When criticized, overly controlled, or not given the opportunity to assert themselves, people begin to feel inadequate in their ability to survive, and may then become overly dependent upon others

Where does it come from
• Initiative vs. guilt
• Major Question: “Am I good or bad?”
• Purpose, Acceptability
• When efforts to engage in activities are stifled by significant others, people begin to feel that their self-initiated efforts are a source of embarrassment.
• If the person’s questions are treated as a nuisance or embarrassing then the person may feel like a nuisance.
• People who are over-directed by others may struggle to develop a sense of initiative and confidence in their own abilities.
Sources of Guilt
• The following things can cause guilt in the actor or their significant others
• Addiction
• Abuse
• Relationship issues – infidelity and divorce
• Parenting – non supportive or absent parenting
• Crime – by the perpetrator and the victim
• Trauma – survivor guilt
• Cultural expectations – family or religious demands on our behavior

Sources of Guilt
• Toxic guilt
• A nagging feeling of pervasive but nonspecific badness, as if your whole life has something wrong with it
• Often has roots in early childhood: mistakes that your parents or teachers treated as a big deal, for example, or religious training
• Gluttony vs. Abstinence (Moderation)
• Sloth vs. Diligence (Balance)
• Greed vs. Generosity (Benevolence)
• Lust vs. Chastity (Moderation)
• Anger vs. Passivity (Assertiveness)
• Pride vs. Humility (Authenticity)
• Envy vs. Rejection (Respect, contentment)

Other Sources of Guilt
• Existential Guilt
• Guilt you feel for having a negative impact
• Guilt you feel for having more than someone else
• Guilt you feel for surviving
• When toxic guilt gets mixed up with existential guilt, people often suffer from a feeling that they are responsible for everyone else's pain
Other Sources of Guilt
• Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda Game
• I shoulda, coulda, woulda…but didn’t
• Go to the gym
• Call my friend
• Finish my report
• I shouldn’t have…but did
• Have that second piece of cake
• Lie
• Call in sick
• Go out drinking all night

• How does guilt impact your attitude, optimism and emotions?
• How does guilt impact your self-esteem?
• How does guilt impact your health?
• How does guilt impact your energy?
• How does guilt impact all other areas of your life?
• How does guilt impact your relationships?
Psychological Flexibility Matrix
• Behaviors that move you away from what is important to you
• Blaming
• Stewing
• Guilt Slips
• Identify what you feel guilty about and write each on a slip of paper
• Review the list and throw away the ones not in your control (This can become compost later)
• Review what is left and identify what you have atoned for. Throw those away.
• What is left, put in an envelope or jar and take out one each day to work on.

• Permission Slips
• Write yourself permission slips to engage in those things you feel guilty doing but are actually not wrong
• Setting boundaries (saying no / asking for help)
• Taking time off
• Getting take-out
• Working late
• Being true to yourself. Following your heart

• Guilt Cards
• On index cards write 30 or so things that people commonly feel guilty for.
• Put the cards in a box.
• Have group members draw a card from the box and explain.
• Where that guilt might have originated
• What can be learned from that experience
• How the person can address that guilt

• Guilt Pack
• Make a list of things you feel guilty for.
• Get a bunch of stones or bricks. Count how many guilts are on your list and add that many weights to your pack. (This is great to do with kids too.)
• Put on the backpack and carry it around while you do housework or yard work.
• Think about how much guilt weighs you down and zapps your energy. How much harder is it to just get up off the sofa carrying all that weight?
• Next, identify which guilts you can either forgive, fix or let go and how (You will learn strategies next). You can take those weights out of their pack.

• Learning to forgive
• First explore what forgiveness means
• Choosing not to allow energy to remain stuck in the past and to use that energy to move toward your goals
• Then identify how to forgive yourself, learn from it and move forward
• Set a No Guilt Allowed rule for when you are relaxing or taking care of yourself
• If you start to feel guilty, ask yourself if what you are doing is wrong
• Identify common guilts and develop positive back-talk

• Guilt Journal
• Keep a log of everything that makes you feel guilty and look for patterns. (Maybe that critical voice of your father or overcompensating for something you did wrong in the past??)
• Right and Wrong Game
• Give everyone 3 pieces of paper. Have each person write three things they have done for which they feel guilty.
• Put all the pieces in a hat or box. Draw one out at a time and have people vote on whether it was right or wrong to do that and explain why.
• Then have them theorize other reasons it might be right to do whatever was done.
• Example: Canceling a night out with your best friend
• Bill of Rights
• Positive Affirmations
• Why do people feel guilty for these?
• Self-Forgiveness
• What if I didn’t feel guilty about this?
• How different would my life be?
• What are the possibilities?
• You’re not denying or ignoring your feelings of guilt or the events that took place. What you’re actually doing is putting yourself into a solution-focused frame-of-mind that will open your mind to the possibilities that may exist.
• Reframe the situation. Ask yourself:
• What’s positive about this?
• How else could I view this situation?
Other Activities
• Write a story about what happened, including
• What were your needs and motives?
• What or who motivated your behavior? Does this remind you of something from your past? Were you recreating or overcompensating for a trauma? (Guilt for not helping a friend struggling with addiction)
• Did your actions reflect your values? If not, what motivated you to do it?
• How did your actions affect you and others? Whom did you hurt? Include yourself.
• Looking back, what healthier beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and actions would have led to a more desirable result?
• How did you feel about yourself and others involved before, during, and after.
• What have you learned from your experience and how you might act differently today.

Other Questions to Ponder
• How were your feelings and mistakes handled growing up? Who was hard on you? How do you replay that scenario today?
• What do you tell your friends when they make mistakes or do what you did (which may not even be a mistake)?
• Evaluate the standards by which you’re judging yourself. Are they your values, your parents’, your friends’, your spouse’s? Do you need their approval?
• Others’ judgements have more to do with them than you. They may never approve. What is the benefit to being judgmental or making people feel guilty?
• Do you expect perfection? Would you forgive someone else for the same actions? Why would you treat yourself differently? How does it benefit you to continue to punish yourself?

Ways To Avoid Feeling Guilty

• Set healthy boundaries. Don’t over-commit or over-promise.
• Practice good time management. Don’t procrastinate
• Focus on progress. Say no to perfectionism.
• Look at the big picture, beyond yourself for all of the contributing factors
• Surround yourself with positive people who don’t blame, shame, judge
• Be assertive. Don’t use guilt as a way to manipulate yourself or others
• Set realistic standards
• Live authentically. Don’t live in accordance with other people’s standards
• Ask/communicate, don’t assume you know how others feel about something
• Guilt comes in many forms
• It is largely anger at ourselves and energy tied up in the past.
• Holding on to guilt weighs us down
• Identifying your sources of guilt and addressing them is the first step.