Previously in the blog, “No” is a complete sentence, I touched on the subject of toxic guilt. Toxic guilt is when we feel guilt without actually having done anything wrong. For example, this could be the guilt felt when you decided to pursue a career in welding when your parents thought you should be a lawyer…like them. They voice their disappointment, and you internalize their emotional reaction as your fault because of the difference between expectations and reality. You feel responsible because you want to safeguard their emotions.
Guilt can be a healthy emotion. It helps you to understand that you have veered off course from your personal compass. It helps you to understand our impact on those around you and helps you cultivate healthy relationships. When you feel healthy guilt, you want to take corrective measures, such as offering a sincere apology, acknowledging the action, and take accountability for it. Guilt is associated with the action, meaning you have done something you have determined as “bad” or “inappropriate” but does not inherently make you a “bad person.”
Is toxic guilt contagious? The answer is yes and no. Toxic guilt generally stems from how emotions were addressed within the family. Toxic guilt results from this false sense of feeling responsible for not only your emotional reactions but for the emotions of others. Cikanavicius says it like this, “this sense of responsibility comes from being overtly or covertly blamed and punished. You’re making your mother sad, Why are you hurting me, You didn’t do what I told you to do!” Children normalize this behavior and internalize it without any other frame of reference. Therefore, is it contagious? Yes, because it is a learned behavior that can be passed on from generation to generation, and no, because you can choose to break the cycle with some healthy boundaries.
First, you need to realize it isn’t all about you. You and your actions are not solely responsible for every emotional reaction of everyone around you. There is a balance in relationships; you are responsible for your emotions and others are responsible for theirs. Feeling that you must manage the emotions of everyone else means you are not authentic to the relationship or to yourself. Unless you intentionally set out to hurt someone, the feelings they are experiencing are their own.
Next, take notice of when you feel guilt and ask yourself questions like:
- What happened that triggered my guilt?
- What exactly do I feel guilty about?
- Could an apology make a positive difference?
- Is my guilt tied to real or imagined events?
- Does my guilt stem from present events or from a painful past?
If you notice most of your guilt stems from a painful past event or a deeply rooted emotion, professional counseling can be beneficial to overcome the toxicity of your guilt. Toxic guilt is associated with anxiety and can result in low self-esteem, low self-worth, and depression as you blame yourself for the negative emotions of others and trying to meet the impossible feat of making sure everyone else is happy all of the time.
Lastly, ask for forgiveness when it is appropriate. If you have hurt someone, acknowledge the hurt and sincerely apologize. Guilt can be released when you have taken accountability and made an honest effort to make amends for the action. Also, forgive yourself. You are human and will make mistakes and unintentionally (and sometimes intentionally) hurt others. When this happens, your healthy guilt will help guide you to take corrective measures to mend the relationship. Remember, once the sincere apology has been offered, you are no longer responsible for their acceptance or denial of the apology.
With healthy boundaries in place, you are well on your way to healthier relationships and social interactions. Plus, you are wiser and better able to work on a more self-loving and respectful relationship with yourself.