On Guilt: Fact, Feeling or Both?

Posted 14th of July 2021 by Bay Whitaker

Guilt is a state that can be incredibly destructive to people.  And our clients often say that they're deepy troubled by feeling guilty.

It can be helpful to break down what people mean by guilt.  One of the first distinctions that I like to make, is between being factually guilty, and feeling guilty.  These are two different things.  If I steal your purse, I am factually guilty of that theft (even if I may not feel guilty about it).  And people often say that they feel guilty about something, even though they know that, rationally, it wasn’t their fault and they are not to blame.

So from this we can see that factual guilt and feeling guilt are completely separate things: they may go together sometimes, but often they don’t.

As a counsellor, part of my job is to enable clients to accept  and understand their emotions.  And of course many emotions are unpleasant, but repressing them comes at a high cost in terms of stress, physical ailments and relationships.  Counselling can help us acknowledge and channel our emotions in ways that feel safe, and that will not damage our relationships. 

When it comes to guilt, if a client is feeling guilty for a past wrongdoing (that is, factual guilt), then we can seek ways to move through that guilt to a state of self-forgiveness.  This might involve some form of apology, or acts of redress or atonement. 

However, if a client is tormented by guilty feelings that are not based in any actual wrongdoing, then we need to get curious, to understand what underpins this emotion.  If there is no factual guilt, then no apology or act of atonement will suggest itself.  In this case, it sometimes turns out that the client is giving the name “feeling guilty” to some other group of emotions and thoughts.  Perhaps the client has friends or family who will react badly to some of their choices, and perhaps this leads to feelings of anxiety and a wish to avoid conflict… which they have somehow got into the habit of describing as “feeling guilty”.  Or perhaps the client is feeling angry or resentful about something, and thinks those emotions are themselves somehow “wrong”, and so transfers their focus from the resentment, to feeling guilty about their resentment.

There is no one template for what underpins the feelings we describe as “feeling guilty”.  But if we separate this from factual guilt, and develop a keen sense of curiosity for what other thoughts and emotions are around when we feel guilty, we can grow our self-understanding and remove the power from this destructive emotion.

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