Patients are always telling me how “guilty” they feel about letting someone down, not returning a phone call, or simply not getting to the gym. What is this thing we call guilt?
From a Self-Coaching perspective, I define guilt as a feeling that you’ve done something wrong. Not getting to the gym, for example, is clearly not doing something wrong, but may leave you feeling guilty and distressed the whole day. So, why do we feel guilty?
The simple answer is that insecurity has introduced an element of self-distrust. This usually takes the form of a “should” statement. I “should” have gone to the gym, I should have made that phone call, and so on. But who says you “should?” If insecurity is insisting on you being a perfect person who does everything you’re “supposed to” do, then it’s inevitable that you will fail (i.e., feel guilty). Or go crazy trying to be perfect.
Next time you feel guilty, ask yourself an important question: “did I do anything wrong?” Be careful with your answer, because, for example, not calling your mother for a day may “feel” wrong, but that isn’t necessarily the objective truth. It’s up to you to separate yourself from your neurotic “shoulds” and “have tos” and insist on being more objective. Not calling your mother may be a result of being too busy, distracted, or preoccupied, but it is not wrong!
All too often guilt is a cheap shot perpetrated by insecurity. It’s a good thing to be responsible, but it’s a neurotic thing not to have a choice.