Many of us feel guilt a lot of the time – at promises we’ve broken to others or ourselves, at things we’ve done or not done.
But there are two different kinds of guilt. One is healthy or appropriate guilt, in which we have behaved in a way that goes against our beliefs and values. With this kind of guilt we can usually acknowledge what we’ve done wrong, make amends and move on.
But there is another form of guilt that is unhealthy or toxic, in which we have done something that goes against the messages we got from someone else, often as a child.
There is also an overlap between feeling guilt and feeling shame and I will cover shame, which also has a healthy and a toxic side, in another post.
When it comes to guilt, if I am angry and shout at my wife I may feel healthy guilt afterwards because that action goes against one of my values, which is treating others with respect. I can then say sorry to my wife and take responsibility for not repeating the behaviour.
If I become angry with my wife and feel guilty that is likely to be an example of toxic guilt, possibly caused by getting the message as a child that I am bad if I feel angry.
Judging feelings as good or bad
Much of the toxic guilt we feel is to do with having certain feelings, but I believe that there is no such thing as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ feeling – feelings are feelings and all human beings experience the full range of emotions. It is what we do with the feelings that is important.
So, if we notice we are feeling guilty about having certain feelings, such as anger, sexual desire or sadness, we may want to think about where we got the idea that having these feelings is ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’.
There is a lot of toxic guilt around feelings like anger, sexual desire and sadness, because many of us were brought up in families where one or more of these feelings were taboo. To gain love and approval from parents we may have learned to push these feelings aside, to repress them. Or, in the case of sexual feelings, to have fought against them.
These core beliefs, which are often unconscious, include: “I don’t have the right to feel or express anger”, “I must put a smile on my face and not feel sad” or “Feeling sexual desire is dirty.”
People who experience a lot of toxic guilt often feel that they must be perfect, that they are not allowed to make mistakes. Again, it is worth questioning where this belief came from. One possible source of the need to be perfect is the child who did not feel loved by his parents and so spends the rest of his life trying to make up for that by being perfect.
I would argue that these core beliefs that certain feelings are ‘wrong’ or that we are not allowed to be imperfect are not part of our intrinsic self but are external beliefs we have internalised, and that’s why they are linked to toxic guilt.
Psychotherapist David Richo, in How to be an Adult, argues that healthy guilt arises when we have stepped out of “our own truth”, the internal bodily wisdom that helps us distinguish experiences that actualise or do not actualise our potential.
Toxic guilt, on the other hand, is when we have disobeyed an injunction or command that was imposed on us. Unlike healthy guilt it is not lifted by acknowledgement and making amends but hangs around. It leads to an inner conflict, not balance.
As Richo says, it is probably impossible to get rid of all our toxic guilt, but what we can do is take a sceptical attitude when we feel this kind of guilt. We can allow it to be present but not let it dictate our behaviour and instead look beneath it at what negative self-beliefs we may be carrying around inside us and which do not really belong to us.