Do you often find yourself feeling guilty, even when you haven’t done anything wrong?
Emotions, even unpleasant ones, serve a necessary function in our lives. They provide information that helps us make sense of our experiences. Psychologist Marsha Linehan, the developer of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, or DBT, writes that feelings of guilt, if justified, can signal that we may have done something that goes against our values. By repairing the error and resolving to do better, we can feel less guilty.
But what if you haven’t done anything wrong? People sometimes feel guilty for asking for what they need or for setting healthy boundaries. If your self-care needs include saying no to some social invitations, for example, or limiting the time you spend with a particular person, you might find yourself feeling guilty. The guilt doesn’t mean you shouldn’t observe your limits. Rather, it means that you have this conditioned guilt response (which you don’t have to follow).
How do you know whether or not the guilt is justified? Look at the facts of the situation, and see how they line up with your values. In DBT, this skill is called “check the facts.” By looking at the actual details of the situation, and not only your interpretations, you can see how your behavior does or does not fit the emotion you’re feeling. In the case of guilt, you may find that you’ve done something that goes against your values, or you may find that you have not.
Or, as is often the case, it may not be so black and white. Often we make imperfect choices because there is no perfect solution to a situation. In this ambiguity, we do the best we can and may be uncertain about our decisions. Guilt, in these cases, may be justified without meaning we should have done something different.
In cases when you haven’t done anything that goes against your values, or when you’ve made a reasonable but imperfect decision, how can you combat those lingering feelings of guilt?
One approach, which comes from DBT, is called opposite action. The idea is to do the opposite of what the emotion makes you want to do. Since guilt makes you want to stop doing the behavior you feel guilty about, opposite action would mean doing that same behavior over and over again. This way, you stop reinforcing the guilt and instead create a different emotional experience (such as confidence, or perhaps even pride).
Because guilt can lead to isolation and worry, making it hard to stay connected to people you care about, it can be useful to work through these feelings so you can feel more comfortable and confident.
Asserting your needs and doing what makes sense for you – even if you feel guilty about it – can counteract feelings of guilt and build confidence.
Over time, changing this pattern can change how you think about yourself and your relationships. You can come to understand and believe that, when someone is upset with you, it doesn’t (necessarily) mean you should have done something different. That may be the case, or it may be that the other person doesn’t understand or support you in observing your limits.
Perhaps you feel guilty about taking time for self-care because you think you should be working instead. Yet, when you look at your values, you actually do believe that self-care is important. Acting opposite to the guilt means asserting your needs, even to yourself, and carving out time for you. Doing this again and again, although the guilt may still be present, teaches your brain that having this feeling is not equivalent to having done something wrong. Having the feeling means just that: An emotion has entered your mind.
With that awareness, you can choose what to do next. By not letting the guilt get in the way of doing what you need or want, you can feel more empowered and more confident in yourself.