RH: So when does it become a problem?
Winch: Guilt is incredibly distracting, and when we’re distracted by feeling guilty, we have trouble concentrating and enjoying life. In fact, we may consciously and unconsciously make efforts not to enjoy things. People can feel guilty for weeks and months and years, so that’s no small pickle. Guilt makes us feel punished. There was a study in which students were allowed to administer electrical shocks to themselves when they played a computer game that deprived a fellow student of a lottery ticket. The device wasn’t connected, but the researchers wanted to see whether the students would flip the switch for such a minor thing, and they did.
RH: What can we do about guilt?
Winch: First, we have to see how maladaptive excessive guilt can be. For example, parents of newborns often can’t leave the house for fear of something bad possibly happening; even if Grandma or some other competent person is there, they feel too guilty to leave. Or the people who squelch their own happiness because their lifestyle doesn’t match the values of their parents or their community, and they can’t take the guilt of living their life the way they’d like to because of what it would do to their parents. When it gets too extreme, this kind of guilt can be very damaging and maladaptive. In other words, guilt does its job when it gives us the signal to reconsider our behavior, but sometimes the signal doesn’t turn off, and we have to learn to turn it off. When we feel guilt about hurting someone, I think the simplest and most direct course of action is to issue a correct apology.
RH: So what makes a good apology?
Winch: One element is a clear statement of real empathy. If you want other people to forgive you, they have to believe that you genuinely understand what you did, that you get what the consequences of that were to them, and that you’re really taking responsibility for your behavior. For example, if you didn’t show up at your best friend’s birthday party because you overslept, saying “I’m really sorry I didn’t come to your birthday party” has no real empathy statement or expression of regret, and probably wouldn’t be well received by most people. But saying “I’m really sorry I didn’t come to your birthday party. I know you must have been very disappointed, and you must have been standing there feeling really bad and wondering what happened to me. It probably put a real dent in your evening. I just feel absolutely terrible.” If your best friend really feels that you get what you did and you’re owning it, then she’ll be able to forgive you. When we omit that empathy statement, there’s a huge piece missing, but when we include it, authentic forgiveness is far more likely.
RH: I noticed your first aid weaves together several different theoretical approaches. Was this a challenge?
Winch: Yes, that synthesis was tough. There’s so much research, and the various theories have so much to say about the various types of emotional wounds. I spent a lot of time whittling down the most relevant material to include. I drew from the narrative therapies and bibliotherapy, lots of cognitive behavioral therapy. There’s also some experiential stuff in there, even systems approaches. The apology component of the guilt piece includes a systems approach, because for your guilt to ease, you need to have the other person get the impact so they can ricochet it back to you. We have a lot of practical stuff in our professional literature. I wanted to weave in as many interesting, different ideas as possible.
I’m one of those therapists who believes that we should be able to offer clients concrete assistance. In my sessions, a notepad and pen are on always on the client’s side of the room. I tell them, “There’s the paper, there’s the pen. Write it down, or you may forget by the time you get to the elevator.”
Ryan Howes, PhD, is a psychologist, writer, musician, and clinical professor at Fuller Graduate School of Psychology in Pasadena, California. He blogs “In Therapy” for “In Therapy” for Psychology Today. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; website: www.ryanhowes.net.