Guilt: does the past create a sense of anxiety?

Guilt is one emotion that can cause us to punish ourselves on a daily basis. It is easy to feel shame or pain about the actions we wish we had not committed. However, sometimes we can feel this emotion because we feel responsible for the actions of others or situations that were beyond us. By doing so, we turn a controllable situation into an uncontrollable situation, invoking anxiety in the process.

Why do we feel guilt?

Our internal moral compass is formed in part when we feel guilty. It is informing us that we have done something wrong. There are many forms of guilt, and many theoretical reasons for its existence. There are also many ideas for how to overcome the emotion in those varying states. However, guilt can appear even if – from an observers perspective – you have not done anything wrong.

So, how does it manifest? Like any emotion it is based on our internal perception and self-belief.

There are many clients who feel guilt for events that were beyond their control – perhaps trying to rewrite history. Other clients may have actually been responsible for actions, without an awareness of the bigger picture. Again, they take this feeling and allow it to own them.

I believe that guilt has a purpose. This does not mean that it should be allowed to stay and grow with each day. However, it allows us to learn from the past, and work to improve our future. For this reason, it cannot be considered a useless emotion.

gavel being placed down, sentencing law. text: guilt can become a lifelong sentence.

What about guilt for the behaviour of someone else?

No person is responsible for the choices of another. If parents cannot control the behaviour of their children, we have no hope to think that we can control the actions or behaviour of anyone else. I have met clients who appear to turn back time, and relive an alternative reality, where their choices could have prevented something.

Whilst the butterfly effect is a great theory, as humans, we need to recognise the power we have on our surroundings is very little. This power diminishes significantly when we recognise the free will of each individual around us. Therefore, whilst feeling guilty for our behaviour may be natural, feeling guilty for the choices of someone else is beyond our scope.

Anxiety and Guilt

Anxiety is becoming more and more common. One pattern I have noticed is the connection between guilt and anxiety. We often discuss the pain, self-hatred or berating attitude the emotion evokes. but there is little dialogue about the impact it has on our future.

Anxiety by definition is: “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome.” or “strong desire or concern to do something or for something to happen.”

When we break this feeling down, we can notice that often the uncertain outcome is based on our experiences of outcomes. If our past has made us feel guilty, we will have fear to return to that situation in the future. To put yourself in a similar situation can be daunting -often paralyzing in nature.

Example A

Imagine: A family member regularly makes a child feel responsible for the adult’s feelings. This family member may appear irrational, self-absorbed, and inconsistent.

Result: The situation reinforces guilt in the child whenever something goes wrong for this family member. Therefore, the child grows up filled with anxiety about recreating the same feeling in everything he/she does. This turns into an internal voice. It informs the child to be concerned about his/her behaviour and the eventual outcome.

Future anxiety: Outcomes were always based on the reaction of an uncontrollable element – the family member. Whenever something new is explored, or something goes wrong, the internal voice returns.

With no sense of safety, or consistency, this voice cannot be challenged, resulting in a pattern of long-term anxiety.

Many people wonder why they feel anxious. However, not all recognise that they may be fearful of repeating a pattern they have experienced many times before. If this is the case, the past would have left you with a bad feeling – more often than not, it is a sense of remorse, sorrow, pain or guilt. You may worry your new friends/family will react in the same uncontrollable manner. This can cause repeated anxiety.

So how do we let go of guilt?

Forgiveness of ourselves as well as others. This is a tricky word. I have previously discussed it in relation to faith, and I hope to share more posts on the larger concept in the future. However, in this instance, if guilt is reminding us of our errors and weaknesses, we need the strength to forgive ourselves. This means accepting ourselves, our past actions, and moving on.

We are not perfect. Mistakes are part of human nature. We are also capable of realizing the error of our ways. If we have harmed anyone this can renew our perspective. If we can learn from the past, there is no need to continuously harm ourselves with long-term guilt.

We also need to be aware that we cannot change the past. We need to disregard feelings that say: “should have”, “could have”, or “would have”. The past is in the past. Just like we cannot control another person, we cannot turn back time.

This can be freeing. When the past cannot change, we can focus on the future. When we can see that the future can be different to the past, this anxiety can be put aside.

We can work to better ourselves, to let go of immense guilt, and to worry less about recreating this overwhelming emotion.

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