Ask guilty feelings these three questions

When a guilty feeling pops up in your life, you know that it’s seldom accompanied by delight or satisfaction. It’s more likely that guilt brings with it unhappiness, resentment, perhaps even anger.

If you don’t enjoy letting those feelings have their way with you, then here’s a three-question strategy you can try. Perhaps you’ll find that feeling guilty is not your only choice; there may be other, more effective choices.

This article is one in a series  on guilt.
You can find the first article in the series here.

1. “Does my guilty feeling serve a purpose that works for me?” That is, does guilt make your life better? Or worse?

For example, say you’ve spent the afternoon sitting in the sun rather than working. Now it’s evening, your work is undone, and you feel guilty. What do you do? If you’re like some of us, you’ll grumble to yourself about your lack of discipline and then you’ll get working to make up what you’ve missed.

So, did your guilt serve a purpose? Well, you were motivated to get your work done, after all.  If a guilty feeling gets you motivated, and if you don’t find that upsetting or distressing, then “fill your boots” (so to speak).

2. “Do I deserve to feel guilty about this situation?” Only you can decide. As you assess whether you deserve to feel guilty, consider, “Did you cause the situation? Are you responsible for it? Have you taken reasonable action?”

In an earlier column, I mentioned the scenario of your mother-in-law wanting you to spend the family vacation with her. If she’s never satisfied, even though you’ve spent many vacations with her, then you probably recognize that you don’t deserve to feel guilty.

In his book, Choice Theory, Dr. Glasser states, “Freedom from the undeserved guilt that floods the external control world we live in is a huge benefit of learning to use choice theory in your life.” You can choose to free yourself from undeserved guilt.

However, if you have studiously avoided spending any time with your mother-in-law, perhaps that guilty, uncomfortable feeling that comes with “I should” is suggesting, “Yes, you really should.” Which brings us to the final question…

3. “Am I prepared to do anything about the situation?”

Taking action—finding a way to be helpful—is a good way to help release yourself from a guilty feeling. Whether it’s a grand production or a small gesture, there’s usually some helpful action one can take.

For the simple example about vacationing with your mother-in-law, you can choose to do what she wants, choose to do what you want, or work out a compromise.

However, if there’s no action to take, or if you are not prepared to take action, then you may as well be honest about it (at least to yourself). After all, if you are not prepared to do anything, being wracked with guilt isn’t really helpful, is it? It doesn’t bring satisfaction to your life, and it’s not helpful for anyone else.

Now, do you ever attempt to use guilting behaviours to coerce others into doing what you think is best? Next column, we’ll consider choices when we are the guilting party.

The next article in this series is here.


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