How to Tell The Difference between True and False Guilt!

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True or False GuiltFeeling guilty is something we all have to deal with from time to time. Guilt serves a purpose in society – when it’s reasonable. True guilt is MEANT to make us feel bad, so that we make amends, rebuild our essential relationships and don’t do it again. False guilt serves no such purpose – and only makes us feel terrible…

Yet there seem to be more and more ‘reasons’ for us to feel guilty (I should have recycled that/volunteered at that fund-raiser/stayed late and finished that project/should have gone to that family dinner). Should, should, should. We seem to go through life should’n all over ourselves – and feeling terrible!

And what makes it worse is that all too often we can’t tell the difference between true and false guilt. Instead we get caught up in the unpleasant guilt feelings – and believe them!

TRUE GUILT comes from a lack of internal integrity. True guilt is when we don’t follow our own truth and we do something that we can see is clearly ‘wrong’ (even if we only see this in retrospect). True guilt is reasonable and appropriate. And with true guilt we can face ourselves, make amends and resolve the matter as best we can, then move on. It’s a mature response that helps us learn and be accountable.

FALSE GUILT is a learned response. It’s triggered by something external to us - an outside demand we could not or did not meet. False Guilt is unreasonable (you can’t reason with it), inappropriate (the guilt is applied incorrectly) and unhealthy (we make ourselves feel terrible). Essentially false guilt is about BLAMING OURSELVES. And when we feel this unreasonable or false guilt, making amends does not resolve our guilty feelings. We get stuck in a cycle of self-judgement, suffering pointless and often debilitating emotional pain.

So, How To Tell If It’s TRUE or FALSE GUILT?

It’s Probably UNREASONABLE or FALSE GUILT if:

  • You feel stuck or trapped (especially if you feel there are no alternatives open to you).
  • You DON’T feel fully responsible or accountable (the situation feels outside of your control).
  • You’re protecting someone else’s feelings.
  • You’ve apologised, made amends and yet you STILL feel guilty.
  • You feel to BLAME. You may even feel the need to be punished.

It’s Probably REAL or TRUE GUILT if:

  • You know exactly why you feel this way. You may not like it, but it’s clear cut.
  • You feel fully responsible and accountable for what happened.
  • The guilt is resolved by facing and/or stopping the behaviour – and taking relevant and appropriate amending action.
  • You can see the entire cycle of actions from beginning to end.
  • The situation leads to learning, self-forgiveness – and ultimately perhaps even higher self-esteem.

REMEMBER: All too often we think because we FEEL guilty – it must be true, we are a bad person. But guilt is JUST A THOUGHT – and not reality. If you can separate these two you’re well on your way!

Watch for next week’s article is about HOW to work through guilt!

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4 Responses to How to Tell The Difference between True and False Guilt!

  1. Shelly says:

    My boyfriend who I have been living with for over a year is moving out because he has so much guilt for leaving his wife and kids. We have completely rearranged our lives to accommodate our children. Having time that we all share together, time with just our kids and time alone. The kids all love each other and seem very happy and secure with the arrangement. We were both in controlled unhappy marriages and unexpectedly fell in love. We are so compatible and are best friends, lovers, and soul mates. Before he moved in with me he tried going back to his wife for the kids but she rejected him. He thought that that would help get rid of his guilt. He loves me a was very happy with me but only feels guilt. It is destroying him. We both are completely heart broken. We have loved each other unconditionally for over 3 years. I want him to feel better about himself I want him to be free from all the guilt and be happy and be the man that he needs to be, I’m so sad and scared that we will never be together again.

    • Emma-Louise says:

      Dear Shelly,

      It sounds like an extremely challenging time for both of you. Guilt (and shame) can take over, making us do things that we think we SHOULD be doing, instead of doing what is right for US. Unfortunately you can’t make his guilt go away – no one can, except him. Until he forgives himself and learns to live with his decisions and choices, he is likely to allow his guilt and shame to influence his behaviour.

      Guilt and shame are INTENDED to make us feel bad. Without it, people could keep doing ‘bad’ things over and over again. But controlling people have learned how to use guilt and shame to get others to do what they want. It feels terrible, so people will do what the other person wants in order to avoid those nasty feelings. In addition, we often have inner critics that also treat us this way – using guilt and shame (And shoulds, ought tos etcs) to drive our choices and behaviour.

      It works only as long as we believe the critic or controlling person, as long as we believe they are more deserving than we are. At the root is often a feeling of worthlessness. And the problem is not whether the thing we have done IS ‘bad’, but whether we THINK it is ‘bad’. If we believe we are bad and worthless we are more likely to agree (judge ourselves) that it’s our fault when someone (or our own critic) accuses us. The problem isn’t the truth, it’s what we believe.

      And it’s worse when we have done something that could be considered bad. This gives our controllers and inner critics REAL ammunition to use. So, we MUST learn to forgive ourselves. Until that happens, it’s very hard to move forwards as we’re constantly (re)judging ourselves.

      This is a BIG topic. In the meantime, while your boyfriend deals with all this (is he seeing a counsellor?), you need to take care of YOU. What are you doing to take care of you? Are you seeing a counsellor to help you with this? You could also see someone together.

      It sounds like you are courageously dealing with a very tough situation Shelly. Please take care of yourself. Keep up your compassion and strength for yourself and your boyfriend. And I hope, in time, that you are together again.

      Warmly, Emma-Louise

  2. peter says:

    I’ve been feeling guilty for over a year and a half now…..I disliked a friend I met and used to hang out with in high school, i kept on thinking he would eventually change and become a better person with time but he just got worse….He never got along with a lot of people in high school, After matric we got accepted in the same university for the Medicine program, I decided to cut him out of my life since I was fed up with his selfish, arrogant, Angry and “Mr know it all” behaviour, it was almost impossible to live with this person, he was not a friendly person. The was absolutely nothing he was adding to my life, he was only there to subtract anything that he could manage to. As new students in varsity ,I felt I could just forgive this person and start afresh, hoping he would be a better person than he was in high school, that did not happen as he continued to make new enemies and getting into all kinds of Drama with people ,I did not know how to handle this person, This is not to make him sound bad but I did not believe this kind of person existed. I found myself stuck with this toxic person all I had to do was tolerate him but I felt miserable everyday to hang out with a person whom I dislike and was starting to hate…I would give this person all he needed despite the way he made me feel but I was oviously doing all the Good things for him out of the Guilt I had for having a hate feeling inside me…I had never felt like that towards anyone before, so I would sometimes put all the blame on myself for feeling that way ,I would think that im a bad person for hating and pretending to like someone I hang out with almost everyday. i would think of letting the guy know exatly how I felt, but knowing him and his attitude it was just going to end up being a fruitless argument which was always going to end with him walking away or ignoring me. This guy became very unfortunate as he then failed the same level twice and had to be excluded from the university that we were both admitted in. After his expulsion from the university I don’t know why I thought I was partly to blame for his situation…..I felt that having all those negative feelings toward him without his knowledge somehow contributed to his downfall. I convinced my mind to believe that I was always wishing for his downfall all the time. I felt I had to be punished, I felt I did not deserve to be happy and successful in anything. I felt I could not forgive myself for all the negative thoughts and feelings I had towards him. i literally felt responsible for his mistake even though I knew nothing about his academic performance. since then I have been saturated in false guilt that I cant rid myself from…My Academic grades suffered aswell as I strongly belived I don’t deserve anything better. I still find it hard to focus in my studies without the false guilt creeping in..i feel by having all bad thoughts ,feelings and maybe wishes towards the guy…I denied him an opportunity of becoming a medical doctor…I know this sounds delusional and from a person with a mental disorder but it is my reality and I need help.

    • Emma-Louise says:

      Dear Peter, it sounds like you are having a tough time. I am going to email you separately about this. Thank-you for trusting enough to reach out. Warmly, Emma-Louise

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