“I can rarely bring myself to say ‘no’ even when I am feeling drained”. “Asking others for what I want makes me feel really uncomfortable. I don’t want to risk rocking the boat”. If these words sound like your own, it might be that you are struggling with toxic guilt.
As we go about our daily lives, our emotions send us messages about our needs and our sense of who we are in relation to others. What they communicate is often outside our consciousness awareness, motivating us to respond in particular ways without needing to think about it. These messages are an adaptation to the world around us, instilling themselves within us to help us navigate the social landscape. However, they can also become a double edged sword and negatively impact our wellbeing.
Guilt can be very uncomfortable to experience but it is a natural and healthy emotion. It alerts you to when you have done something which violates your personal values. This can allow you to reflect, take responsibility for the part you played and move forward. As such, guilt is essential for developing and maintaining close relationships. More than that, it helps bind society together by encouraging a sense of responsibility to each other. If there is anything personal you can learn from a particular incident you feel guilty about, then it also provides the opportunity for personal growth. However, no matter how constructive guilt can be, this is only part of the story. In some situations, guilt even becomes a destructive influence.
When guilt becomes a problem
When something goes wrong or tensions are high, you might find yourself taking on more responsibility than is truly yours. You might even feel guilty even when you have done nothing wrong at all. This kind of guilt can bring on a variety of distressing and challenging emotions. Any attempt at reflection then becomes overthinking and this just makes things worse. The reason this type of guilt is different is because it is rooted in and triggers shame.
Shame can be described as toxic because it focuses on who you are as a person, rather than what you have done. It carries messages like ‘I am unworthy’, ‘I am bad’ or ‘something is wrong with me’. Such critical judgements leave you with the sense of not being enough and the underlying fear that you could be rejected or abandoned. This is a deeply unsettling and isolating experience which people naturally want to avoid. Yet, it can easily feel as if you are trying to escape the inescapable.
People from all kinds of backgrounds can develop such thoughts and feelings about themselves. However, if you are in a marginalised or oppressed group, the chances are increased. This is because society gives out both subtle and overt messages about your worth in relation to others. When regularly faced with such messages, it is easy for them to sneak into your internal model of your place in the world. This is especially the case when the messages are unspoken since they are then difficult to consciously resist.
Fuelling the cycle
If you experience toxic guilt and shame, it can cause you to constantly doubt yourself and feel highly sensitive to how other people respond to you. You might feel anxious about making mistakes or worry that you have accidentally upset someone. In trying to manage these thoughts and feelings, it is natural to develop the habit of striving to please people. The problem is: you then end up crossing your boundaries and neglecting your own needs. You also put yourself in an impossible situation. No one can please others all of the time and no one can avoid making mistakes. So, when you manage to meet these conditions, you will be able to keep your guilt and shame at bay. But, when you don’t, they will lash out at you again and fuel the self-fulfilling cycle.
This overall experience is accompanied by struggles with low self-esteem and can sometimes lead to anxiety, depression or other mental health difficulties. It can also leave you open to being manipulated or becoming trapped in an unhappy or abusive relationship.
Finding a way forward
When you feel that you are bad because you made a mistake, it can first be helpful to acknowledge the emotions you are experiencing. Try not to resist the feelings but just notice that they are there. Once you have done this, try to remind yourself that we all make mistakes and do things which are considered bad sometimes. Making mistakes or doing something bad does not make you a bad person. Thinking this thought is not going to miraculously get rid of your shame. Nor does it mean that you are avoiding any genuine responsibility you might hold. It is just a possible starting point in trying to respond differently. To move further along the path, you will likely need to take a closer look at how you experience guilt and shame.
A good way to do this is to find a counsellor who you feel you can share with openly. Counselling provides an environment where judgement is replaced by acceptance and empathy. The safety provided by this kind of relationship can be very powerful in allowing you to uncover the messages behind your feelings of guilt and shame. It can enable you to address the beliefs and self-judgements which keep you trapped in unhelpful patterns of behaviour and to start being more compassionate towards yourself. This frees you up to find new ways of responding to situations and to accept the things you cannot control. Through this process, you begin to let go of responsibility which is not yours and, along with it, your sense of toxic guilt and shame.
If this article has been helpful, feel free to contact me to arrange a first session.