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By Dr. Janet Scott

The Mid-South Tribune

The Mid-South Tribune ONLINE

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Destroying Yourself with Guilt! 

            Life is filled with all kinds of personal hurts, lies, broken promises, unintentional slips, etc. Most of the wounds one experiences are generally able to heal without complications. Guilt is one of the exceptions.

            Guilt is a feeling of responsibility for having done something wrong. It is a feeling of not being worthwhile, not deserving anyone’s looking, or that constant thinking that something is wrong with him or her. It is a powerful feeling that often paralyzes one. Thus, it keeps one stuck in the same position. The paralysis, in a sense, is a blessing to some because it curtails much movement in one’s life which decreases the interaction for more possible feelings of failure and rejection. These two feelings play a major role in the arena of guilt.

            We all feel in varying amounts and for different reasons. We generate guilt in ourselves and we make every effort to stimulate it in others. One usually allows guilt to torment one’s life long after the misdeed has been done. Often one does not know where the guilt began or how to relieve the suffering.

Unhealthy Guilt

            Unhealthy guilt is unproductive to one’s peace of mind, wisdom, and ability to care for ourselves and others. It is maladaptive and interferes with the ability to function effectively.

            At the start of life, one’s guilt feelings are closely bound to those we love. The more attached we are, the guiltier we feel if we hurt the loved one. In childhood particularly, guilt may heightened emotional difficulties. One reason we accept guilt so easily is because we are taught early in life that anger is not an acceptable emotion.

            Excessive guilt feelings can be the result of overly strict parents who constantly blamed the child and made the child feel guilty for failing at a task. Children must be taught to accept responsibility. If teaching is done through shame, humiliation or guilt the child begins to feel that he/she is unable to do anything right. The individual will learn to accept blame for everything that goes wrong in a situation resulting in a constant feeling of guilt.

            As these children become adults, they often find that they are no longer free to express moods, needs, fantasies. Many find themselves in the act of pleasing others. Natural moods and impulses feel shameful. Gradually, they learn to block out the feelings. The individuals resign themselves to live in a state of unhealthy guilt. This is where they put forth the futile effort to please everyone, do good, be perfect, and keep oneself safe and secure. In the process, it helps keep the individuals prisoners of their own urges to do what they think they “should” do. In saying yes to guilt, one begins to say no to life.

            As adults these individuals continue to have low opinions of themselves that manifests into taking the blame of any wrongdoing. They disapprove of themselves more and more. This evidently generates excessive guilt which means not knowing how to get out of the suffering. To relieve some of the suffering one tends to turn to destructive outlets such has drug addiction, alcoholism, overeating, anorexia, gambling, depression, physical illness, etc.

Shame vs. Guilt

Shame often follows a moment of exposure. What has been exposed is something that we would have preferred kept hidden, usually something of an intimate and personal nature. Shame usually speaks about our inner self rather than our activities.

            Often shame is confused with guilt. Shame is about the quality of our person. Guilt is the painful emotion triggered when we become aware that we have acted in a way to bring harm to another person or to violate some important code. Guilt is about action. In some cases of guilt, one can pay for the damage inflicted. One can never pay for the emotional or mental pain.

            Shame is so pervasive that it affects what you hear other people say. You may react negatively to comments that we are not meant that way. You may even “hear” things that were never said.

            Shame can keep one from moving into a healthy state. Shame is deeply rooted. It has one feeling basically unworthy, flawed, imperfections. Unhealthy shame can attack the core of one’s identity.

Recovery from Guilt

 There is no magic formula that will release one from all guilt. Recovery means uncovering the feeling and replacing it with the truth. This is done by:

1). Stop denying the guilt

2). Recognize the feeling of guilt

3). Learn to confront the guilt feelings

4). Be able to accept the guilt feelings

5). Identify and focus on the behaviors that have generated the guilt

6). Examine one’s own conscience

7). Take any appropriate actions that will help let go of the guilt

8). In letting go of the guilt, learn to self-forgive

9). Seek professional help in dealing with one’s guilt


            Everyone feels guilt in varying amounts and for different reasons. One has to be able to stop denying reasons. One has to be able to stop denying and begin to recognize one’s own guilt feelings. Guilt is generated in ourselves by ourselves. It is also stimulated in others. All too often one does not know where it comes from or how to relieve the suffering. In looking at one’s guilt it is imperative to understand one’s personal expectations, discover whom you are attempting to measure up to, whom you are attempting to please and determine whether it is even possible to accomplish this task. One deserves to experience the joy and abundance of life and one’s unique value as a person. This can only be accomplished as one learns to deal with guilt.


Dr. Scott is a contributing columnist for The Mid-South Tribune. She is a National Board Certified Counselor and a Tennessee licensed professional counselor with a mental health provider designation offering individual, group, couple and family therapy. Her office is located at 1331 Union Ave., Memphis, TN. 38104; phone: 901-722-8751.








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