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Letting go of guilt and taking care of yourself in 2021

27/04/2021

Guilt is something that the vast majority of humans feel.  Although guilt plays an important part in our survival, there are also ways that guilt can be problematic and stop us from achieving our full potential. Miss Joanne Stuart, Clinical Psychologist at Highgate, explores how to channel feelings of guilt in this blog post.

The ‘five-area model’

If you are not familiar with the five-area model, here is one for you to look at whist I discuss the different elements. Firstly, the egg shape represents everything that takes place in our environment. Our environment influences, or impacts on, the other elements. One of those elements is ‘mood’. This circle on the model represents all of our emotions.

There are multiple emotions or moods but some of the main ones are anxiety, depression, surprise and guilt. We do not have a direct control of our emotions, i.e. we can not click our fingers and change them. This, I believe, is one of the most unfortunate things about our brains. Instead, what we have to do to change an emotion is change one of the other systems outlined in the five-area model: ‘Thoughts’, ‘Physical Reactions’, or our ‘Behaviour’.

Physical reactions

This circle on the five-area model represents how our body responds to particular emotions. We all know how our physical body changes when we feel anxious – it may be an increase in heart beats or nausea. With depression we have less physical energy. Guilt is more difficult to describe but generally we feel uncomfortable or tense.

Thoughts

When our brain triggers the emotion we know as guilt, we begin to think about all of the things that we did wrong. This might lead on to us thinking about what a bad person we are and how the future is going to be bleak because we are so useless. This line of thinking will reduce confidence and hold people back.

Behaviour

Finally, we turn to the influence of behaviour. When we feel guilt, we are driven to change our behaviour. Sometimes this can be positive: it might be that we shouted at our partners/children/family member/friends. Or perhaps we behaved badly at work or at a social event. If we did something that was destructive to our body or to others and we decide that we do not want to behave like that again, then maybe the guilt that we feel can have a positive outcome where we can think about how we would like to act the next time we are faced with the same situation. However, if we just feel terrible about ourselves and so guilty that it makes us withdraw from relationships, work opportunities, or social situations, then obviously this is not a positive outcome.

How to reduce the impact of guilt on our lives

Now we understand how guilt influences us, it is useful for us to think about what we can do to reduce its impact it. There are so many occasions where we feel guilty, but that guilt does not actually help us to make improvements in our lives and feel better. We just focus on feeling bad and think about how awful we are. In my experience, I’ve come across so many people who feel guilty for many reasons, with the most common being:

  • not playing with children enough or not doing enough for friends or family
  • not doing enough exercise
  • eating too much, or drinking too much alcohol
  • working too much and not seeing partners/children/friends/family
  • not getting enough done at work and feeling our boss will think badly of us

I know that we can all connect with some of these – I know that I can!

New year’s resolutions – a reflection

With Q1 of 2021 already behind us, let’s stop and consider – how many of us have broken our new year’s resolutions, and how do we feel about that? We need to have a different relationship with guilt. Firstly, when we feel guilt – recognise how it feels in the body. Become familiar with guilt. Recognising that we feel a particular emotion can help us to then watch what happens next.

It is useful for us to spend some time thinking about what we feel guilty about. Is it something that we would like to change? If so, think about what we will do differently next time. We have to remember, though, that we only have so much time in our lives and we can not do everything for everyone else at the expense of having time for ourselves, as this increases stress and irritability. Maybe doing a little less for others and a little more for ourselves is actually beneficial for everyone.

Or, if we have failed at something that we wanted to do, whether that is a new exercise regime, a project at work, or changing our diet/job/home etc. then think about whether we are expecting too much of ourselves. It is better to break down what ever we want to achieve in to small steps and carry out step one. When we have achieved this, we can move on to the next step. In that way, we build our confidence in our achievements and won’t be bogged down by failures. Rather than a strict diet, what about trying to change one element of our diet and then, when we have integrated that, move on to changing something else. Rather than running a mile, what about increasing exercise every other day, starting with a five-minute jog? Rather than feeling we should be applying for multiple jobs, spend 30 minutes each day on an application.

The key to all of this is, I believe, being realistic about how much we can give or do and forgiving ourselves when we mess up. Good luck!

By Dr Joanne Stuart

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