If you have a tendency to feel guilty, or are fighting feelings of guilt that you have been carrying for a long time as a Vetrehabber, a parent or a person, then you need to hear what we are about to say.
Guilt is an emotional response, and as such is not a good or bad thing. Holding on to guilt instead of processing what caused the emotion can cause you to go on a downward spiral, becoming more likely to repeat the action that caused the guilt, reducing your confidence, increasing the chances of depression, lack of motivation, and more.
If you believe that feeling guilty makes you a better person, then I’d like to challenge that belief.
The Emotion and its role
People who expect to feel guilty tend to be more sympathetic, to put themselves into other people’s shoes, to think about the consequences of their behaviour before acting, and to treasure their morals. As a result they are less prone to lie, cheat or behave immorally when they conduct a business deal or spot an opportunity to make money, studies suggest. They are also likely to make better employees because people who think less about the future results of their actions are more likely to be late, to steal or to be rude to clients. The Telegraph.
Guilt is closely linked to empathy and, as Vetrehabbers, we are prone to high empathy with our patients and our clients, making us more likely to experience guilt.
But guilt also has another, unexpected action:
Despite their differences, pride, shame and guilt all activate similar neural circuits, including the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, amygdala, insula and the nucleus accumbens. Interestingly, pride is the most powerful of these emotions at triggering activity in these regions – except in the nucleus accumbens, where guilt and shame win out. This explains why it can be so appealing to heap guilt and shame on ourselves — they’re activating the brain’s reward center. The Upward Spiral.
This highlights why feelings of guilt can spiral, becoming habits very quickly, and can drive or determine our mindset; our brain’s are literally rewarding us for the feeling. And unfortunately, the negative impact of guilt can far outweigh the positive impact of that momentary reward.
When guilt goes wrong
Study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control. It is also one of the single biggest predictors of depression, which drains both ‘I will’ power and ‘I want’ power. The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It.
The guilt that many of us experience is not a helpful emotion that guides us towards self-improvement, but rather becomes a mindset, a thinking pattern, and a way for us to punish ourselves – often unjustly. When guilt results from our belief that we should be better, do better, or achieve more than we are, it can lead us to distress. It is rooted in our belief that we are not good enough, that we do not measure up to someone else or an ideal. This guilt can have a profoundly negative impact on our personal and professional relationships, mental health, patient outcomes and our lives. Over time, we can start to feel worthless, discouraged and hopeless as our guilt increases our anxiety and depression and continues to suppress our ability to recognise our own value.
So it is not guilt that drives us to be better people, therapists, or parents. It is not guilt that motivates us to learn, grow and improve ourselves. Improvement of self and a never-stop-learning attitude come from knowing and understanding our strengths and weaknesses, humility and love for ourselves and our profession, and a drive to continue to become more than what we are today.
Acceptance, forgiveness and compassion
Surprisingly, it’s forgiveness, not guilt, that increases accountability. Researchers have found that taking a self-compassionate point of view on a personal failure makes people more likely to take personal responsibility for the failure than when they take a self-critical point of view. They also are more willing to receive feedback and advice from others, and more likely to learn from the experience. The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It.
When we do make mistakes, as we all do and must – allow yourself this! – we need to accept our actions and take responsibility for them, while forgiving ourselves. From this place, we can work to correct our mistake or make amends. We need to openly acknowledge the role we played in a given situation, understanding the aspects we could and could not control or influence before we can learn from those actions and forgive ourselves for the part we played.
Being compassionate towards ourselves can help us to counteract guilt that is out of proportion to the actions causing it, allowing us to process the emotion and the results of that emotion.
Practising self-love, self-care, or self-compassion with intention can be extremely important when you are trying to break the hold that guilt has on your life. Do what you need to do to process the experience, accept your role in it, forgive yourself and move forward from that place.
Self-compassion was clearly associated with steadier and more constant feelings of self-worth than self-esteem. We also found that self-compassion was less likely than self-esteem to be contingent on particular outcomes like social approval, competing successfully, or feeling attractive. When our sense of self-worth stems from being a human being intrinsically worthy of respect – rather than being contingent on obtaining certain ideals – our sense of self-worth is much less easily shaken. Self-Compassion.
What you become
More often than not, the belief that you are bad contributes to the ‘bad’ behavior. Change and learning occur most readily when you (a) recognize that an error has occurred and (b) develop a strategy for correcting the problem. An attitude of self-love and relaxation facilitates this, whereas guilt often interferes.’ Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy
When we think of ourselves in a certain way – ‘I am a bad Vetrehabber/ mother/ sister/ friend/ pet parent/ wife, etc’ – that is what we are likely to become. These thoughts determine our direction and in this case, they lead us down a slippery slope where we become less able to resist temptation, we doubt our decisions and eventually become unable to make decisions, our clinical reasoning is reduced and we doubt our evaluations. We drive ourselves more and more towards following recipes and protocols instead of trusting ourselves to develop the best plan for the patient in front of us.
We essentially lower the bar to which we hold ourselves accountable. We expect less and less from ourselves as people, parents and as Vetrehabbers. Our guilt ends up eating away at us both on an emotional level and on a professional level.
What comes next?
Once we recognise the role we played and can forgive ourselves, we can take the necessary steps towards making amends and learning from the situation. If you have wronged someone, seek their forgiveness, and very importantly, forgive yourself.
Then you need to ask yourself what you have learned from the experience and develop a strategy for change.
Why not allow any guilt you feel in future to act as a warning light, letting you know something needs to be changed, and then address it from a place of love and humility instead of allowing the guilt to erode who you are as a person and a professional?
Feeling guilt is an emotion, just like anger or sadness, and as such we shouldn’t think of it as a good or a bad thing, but rather as an opportunity for us to check ourselves and the circumstances that led to the emotion arising in us. When we take this approach to our emotions, we allow ourselves to act rationally after evaluating the circumstances and the best way to proceed. In the long run, this approach is likely to yield lessons and grow our confidence, so that we inevitably become more and more competent at what we do.
Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy
The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It