Have you ever felt as though you might lose your breath, almost unnerved as a mysterious entity is crushingly holding your chest? As you are gasping for air, you may find yourself pleading, with whomever may be listening, for respite as the discomfort becomes almost paralysing. All you know is that you want to rid yourself of this chilling presence, the one that makes you want to repent for your sins. So you make a pact with it and negotiate your freedom; its wish is your command – you promise to do whatever it tells you to as long as it releases its grip. Although some of the requests are reasonable, you begin to feel powerless and eventually come to regret the soulless decision of signing your rights away. What could this eerie figure be? Toxic guilt.
What is Guilt?
Guilt is aversive and it is seen as a self-conscious emotion. You can feel guilt over your own actions, behaviours, thoughts, or perceived failures. Guilt isn’t always negative; in fact, it can propel us to rectify any wrongdoings and inspire us to learn from our mistakes. However, it can also warp your sense of reality, transporting you into a parallel universe where those stricken by this dull ache succumb to self-medication (e.g. avoidance and people-pleasing). Unfortunately said remedy can have side effects, including loss of self, lack of boundaries and disregard of own needs. How can we differentiate the good kind from the bad? Let’s find out.
Exploring Different Types of Guilt Through My Lens
- Believe it or not, guilt may be a sign of poor self-esteem. As someone who had been beaten down, harassed and belittled by their own critical voice, I am now able to recognise how my negative self-image fueled the flames of guilt and impacted my decision-making as well as my behaviours. For example, there had been times when if I didn’t agree with a friend, I would be quite taciturn. I didn’t want to express my true concerns for fear of being disliked or rejected. I would feel guilty for even having thoughts or opinions that would differ to theirs. Saying “yes” became a guilt-ridden ritual – temporarily safe, yet hindering my self-esteem long term.
- Low self-esteem, childhood trauma, depression and anxiety – these are some of the risk factors that may increase our susceptibility to survivor’s guilt. There are two types of survivor’s guilt:
- Event-based guilt – we may feel remorse when we survive a traumatic event where others have died
- Existential guilt – we may feel guilty for surviving a particular situation, even though we are cognisant of the fact that there is nothing we could have done to prevent others from suffering or dying (Waichler, 2023).
Being a child of immigrants, I’ve often felt quite guilty for having been born and raised in Europe. I must admit that at times I fall victim to the dark allure of doom-scrolling. In those moments, I cannot bear to divert my gaze and I end up force-feeding myself upsetting images until I feel sick. In a sense, I want to feel the pangs of injustice in the world, not to punish myself but rather to ensure that I don’t forget. But, if I am being truthful, I suspect that there might still be a small part of me who believes that I don’t deserve the privilege I have. Why do I get to have a roof over my head whilst others don’t? Why I have been kissed by luck while others have never felt her magical embrace?
- Another type of guilt that many of us will be familiar with is the guilt trip. This usually occurs when an individual entices someone to act a certain way by instilling guilt in them. When thinking about this, some of us may associate it with our caregivers. I, for one, have fallen prey to it many times when it comes to my own parents. Their love for me has at times “hindered” their ability to communicate with me, resulting in requests soaked in guilt and parental premonitions. For example, whenever I would express my yearning to see other parts of the world, that were not my parents’ countries of origin, my father would pipe up and say “What are you going to do there? You don’t know anyone there and what if something happened to you? Go to Ghana instead, where we have family. Who knows how long they’ll be around for?” Sigh.
- Some of us may feel guilt over certain intrusive thoughts we may be having. An intrusive thought is an unwanted thought, image, feeling, idea that may be upsetting and that you cannot seem to get rid of. They may be a symptom of underlining mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression or OCD. Some may have sexual thoughts while others may experience more violent or strange ones. Most of these thoughts are just thoughts, not a sign that you may be disturbed. During my darkest times, my unhappiness would be nourished by death anxiety. I kept ruminating over the same thought – “When am I going to die?”. My mortality frightened me so because I hadn’t had a chance to live yet. To live meant to be free from the mental prison I had carefully erected, and unfortunately at that moment I was still doing time. The more I thought about death, the more trapped I felt.
- What about the guilt we feel when we may have caused harm to someone? Even though the degree to which individuals feel it varies, it is normal to feel remorse after impacting someone negatively.
Good Guilt vs. Bad Guilt (with tips)
As previously mentioned, I do believe that some guilt can be positive and can certainly push us to have important conversations, correct our mistakes or fight injustice. However, guilt becomes toxic when it starts to interfere with your quality of life and becomes detrimental to your health. In my case, my addiction to validation and approval triumphed my need to be true to myself. Not only that, but my fears convinced me that ignoring my voice and needs would guarantee me an easy ride on this life-long journey. I was lost for so long that I became a marionette strung along by toxic guilt.
Here’s what helped me understand and cope with toxic guilt:
- Understanding my needs and respecting my own boundaries. E.g. if I need time off work, I shouldn’t feel guilty for taking it. I am looking after my own health.
- Reminding myself that my views, opinions, ideas also matter. I shouldn’t make myself small, invisible or complicit just to please others.
- Working on my self-esteem, in order to reduce guilt, by:
- Understanding unhelpful rules and assumptions that were hindering my self-esteem (e.g. I must always say “yes” so that people will like me; if I speak up, people will not love me anymore; I must always be perfect, so that people will love me).
- Tackling unhelpful behaviours that were compromising my self-esteem (e.g. lack of boundaries, not standing up for myself, perfectionism, ignoring red flags, staying in unhealthy situations).
- Surrounding myself with people that loved me for me.
- Practicing self-acceptance – celebrating the “good” about me, while learning to coexist with the “bad” and the “ugly”.
- Realising that watching distressing videos or wearing a cape wouldn’t save all the world’s problems (see resources at the end).
- Recognising the role I play in situations (e.g. am I responsible for all the terrible things happening? Is it my fault that I survived but others didn’t?).
- Allowing myself to grieve any feelings that may come up (e.g. anger, depression, denial).
- Engaging with important causes when/if I have the mental and physical capacity.
- Practising self-compassion and forgiveness (e.g. if I have harmed someone, I try to rectify my mistakes and work on forgiving myself).
- Understanding the hidden meaning behind guilt tripping and asking the individual resorting to this tactic to express their concerns or desires clearly.
- Labelling intrusive thoughts and seeing them for what they are – just thoughts I cannot control. Letting them pass you by rather than trying to suppress them is the best course of action (see resources at the end).
- Seeing a therapist.
Guilt can certainly be a powerful tool, as long as it’s not causing us any harm. Just remember – there’s a difference between a harmless prick and a torturous sting.