Guilt is an underestimated emotion that in many cases it’s at the root of major emotional problems such as depression or anxiety related problems. How can that be?
Guilt is still in us from birth, but it’s meant to work as a deterrent to unwanted behaviours. So how come we feel guilty after doing certain things or after interactions with other people? Why is it felt after the event and not prior to it?
If we regard guilt as feelings of shame or regret as a result of bad conduct, we can see how the psychological process of guilt begins. Then if it follows that we deserve to be blamed for an “imagined” offence or wrong doing, it is understandable how can guilt be entwined and precede an episode when the sense of self gets split into two, the one that feels the offence but the other one that may feel the injustice as there is no real proof but a self-perceived one that wrong has been done.
Therefore, the after-event guilt forces us to make decisions based on poor evidence, that is to say, that we feel guilty about something we have done, but what we did was not wrong or unlawful.
I will describe a clinical case of depression where guilt was at the bottom of the problem. This is a 50-year-old professional woman, with a very responsible job. She has been in and out of depression most of her life when she tired of it, she requested therapy. We explored her several episodes of depression and found a common theme, that on each occasion she was exceeding her own “self-perceived-capabilities” and as a result, she could not cope, she then felt guilty for not doing what she perceived was requested, this was what made her enter into each depressive episode.
The patient in question did not realise she has done her best but still put upon herself unreasonable expectations. She felt guilty because she was asking herself to perform to other people’s self-perceived expectations that exceeded what she could actually do.
How then this guilt feeling links to depression? In the example above, she felt that if she did not do what was requested, she would let people down and people would not love her. The turntable is that this becomes a fulfilling prophecy, the higher her expectations the more her guilt was felt. Because she could not comply, she would experience increase fear of letting others down and lack of love. Therefore, entering into a state of helplessness and from then on to depression. The purpose was that in order to avoid a perceived sense of letting people down, she inadvertently chose to exceed ever day more her expectations but was unable to comply, engaging in an endless treadmill.
From Research and my own clinical experience, we now know that Guilt shares a lot of symptoms with depression; and also, that depression can develop within someone with excess guilt feeling. The initial work on this kind of clinical scenario is to bring during therapy the experience that those feeling in fact are not harmful and can be tolerated over time instead of immediately avoided. It is possible to come out from those bad feelings but it does take some work. The self-realisation and the process work allow the guilt to be dealt with better. And move the guilt feeling to a more productive place.
Psychological therapies will help you identify those emotions to stop getting entangled in complex patterns or vicious circles where we feel trapped. This is why seeking help from a clinical psychologist will help you to discriminate the effect or impact of guilt in your personal difficulties.