Do you often feel as if you have a disapproving parent, partner or boss who repeatedly triggers the feeling of guiltIf so, you have a lot of company. Guilt is an emotion that comes up frequently in coaching sessions.  

One of the most interesting things about guilt is how I hear people describe it. People are often quick to point the finger to an external source when they refer to guilt, saying that someone in their life “makes them feel guilty.” 

The truth is: emotions are not put upon you; they don’t just happen to you. Your father can tell you he wishes you would spend the holidays at home rather than at your in-laws; your daughter can disparage your baking skills compared to her friends’ moms during the school bake sale; your boss can shoot you a disapproving look when you make an uninformed comment at a team meeting. Still, the feeling gets created by your lens; how you perceive and interpret the comment that was made or the event that happened, etc. Again, it’s not the comment or event that creates the feeling of guilt – it’s you and you alone. You drive your thoughts and moods. 

But that’s not always apparent to people. Just recently in one of my virtual leadership workshops, one attendee was blown away by this realization. Once he learned that he was creating his own moods and emotions through his thoughts, it was a huge “a-ha” moment for him. That’s the whole idea behind JMA’s MindMastery workshop. Leaders first learn how they are creating their mood states and then eventually invoke proven methods on how to manage, minimize and eventually eliminate them. You realize that you have a choice: either stay in a negative mood state or reframe the situation and shift out of that negative state to a positive one. 

A Family Affair 

A huge component of your moods is self-created with repetitive thoughts and beliefs. Let’s consider a family with three siblings who has a mother who constantly complains that her children don’t make the effort to visit her enough. Each sibling will react differently to this situation based on what they are each thinking and saying in the moment.  

Sibling #1: “My mom constantly makes me feel guilty because I don’t visit her at least once a week. I really should, but I’m just so busy managing my own family right now.” 

Sibling #2: “I wish mom would stop nagging me about visiting her more often. It drives me crazy that she’s always acting like I’m such a bad son. My sisters don’t visit often either!” 

Sibling #3: “Mom sounds as if she is lonely. Perhaps she should become more socially active and find a new hobby, or plan a weekly outing with her friends.” 

Sibling #1 is ridden with guilt because she feels as if she is a bad daughter for not visiting her mom more often.  

Sibling #2 is angry that his mom is constantly suggesting he visit more often.  

Sibling #3 is not impacted at all by her mother’s concerns, but rather looks for a solution that will help her mom feel better without changing her own behavior and increasing visits.  

All three siblings are hearing the exact same language from their mother, yet all three are interpreting it differently and therefore having different emotions and reactions to it. It’s not what the mother is saying, it’s how the siblings are receiving the communication. In Sibling #3’s case, she determines that her mother’s expectations don’t necessarily match the expectations she has for herself, and she’s okay with that. Sibling #1 is turning her mother’s expectations into her own, even though they may not be realistic for her lifestyle. Sibling #2 is resentful of his mother and is letting that anger affect other areas of his life, like his relationship with his sisters.  Everyone gets to create how they want to show up for their parents in life.  

Of course, there are some people in our lives (parents, teachers, partners, children, etc.) who can be very practiced in saying things that trigger the mood of guilt for us. That conversation with your mom can relay her belief that if you don’t visit so often, you aren’t a caring son or daughter. But that’s your mother’s belief system, and you can reject it. In reality, no one can make you feel guilty. If they could, we would all feel guilty most of the time!  

Understand that your feelings are subconscious until you are able to become self-aware, just like the gentleman in my workshop. It’s in that moment that you can start identifying the triggers and patterns that you have. Once you become conscious, you realize that what your mother is saying to you creates a conversation, and it’s up to you how you want to interpret and react to that conversation.  

Related: Feelings, Emotions and Moods: How to Say What you are Experiencing 

6 Strategies to Overcome Guilt 

Guilt can be a pesky feeling, with an emotional hold that often lasts beyond the circumstances or remark associated with it. Whether your guilt stems from perceptions of how others are judging your actions, or from your own assessments, the following strategies can help free you from its grip. 

Differentiate between empathy and guilt — There is a fine line between understanding how someone might feel in a certain situation and taking responsibility for those feelings. Don’t cross that line. While you always want to be respectful, you are not responsible for managing other people’s feelings. 

Let go of perfectionism — Research has established a link between perfectionism and situational guilt. That comes as little surprise. If your measure of “perfect” is based on being all things to all people at all times, you will fall short. Evaluate whether your own standards are realistic. Can you ease up on any self-imposed pressures? 

Recognize triggers — While it’s up to you to take responsibility for your own thoughts, moods and behaviors, we are all products of our past. Dynamics that were established in childhood, or in previous relationships, can impact the way you hear something that your partner says to you today. If you were unfairly blamed for something as a child, you might be inclined to feel guilty whenever your partner complains about something, even if you’ve done nothing wrong. Developing an awareness of your triggers can help you manage them. 

Do a reality check — Before beating yourself up, thinking of all the ways you’ve let others down, stop. Do a reality check. Accept the fact that, on certain days, there will be people in your life, whether overly demanding bosses or overtired children, for whom your efforts simply aren’t good enough. Remind yourself that you’re not falling short; rather, their expectations may not be reasonable. Find a reassuring perspective, like “I’m doing the best I can,” and repeat it over and over in your head until a sense of calm replaces the guilt. Or, ask yourself, “Is there something I am not seeing or action that I can take that can help me be more successful in this situation? 

Identify healthy versus unhealthy guilt — Healthy guilt is a valuable learning tool. It can serve as an emotional red flag that a thought or behavior is out of alignment with your values, giving you an opportunity to steer yourself back on course. Unhealthy guilt, on the other hand, is much more complicated. If left unchecked, unhealthy guilt can take a toll on self-esteem, getting in the way of building strong relationships and achieving personal and professional goals. 

Determine whether you have competing commitments – Like in our sibling example, it’s important to know whether expectations being put upon you are actually part of your values or someone else’s. Those closest to us can hold different expectations and values and make assessments about our behavior or lack of behavior based on those. If that’s the case, it’s important you establish boundaries around other peoples’ standards or expectations.  

If your value system is different, look at why you are behaving the way you are. Are you a people pleaser? Or are you just unconscious about what your personal values are? A lot of people don’t take the time to evaluate what their values, beliefs, expectations and standards are for themselves. But you need to do this in order to be able to manage the expectations of others. Otherwise, you’ll always live in guilt for not meeting their standards, which may not necessarily be the same as yours.  

If you have always thought that others “make” you feel guilty, it’s time to better understand how your thoughts and moods drive your behavior and results. In our MindMastery workshop, you will become uber aware of how your particular brain works. You will become aware of the mental habits that you embody mindlessly day-in and day-out that sabotage your success. Finally, you will leave with an app that will support your brain change as you will learn and practice mindset strategies to lower stress, manage emotions, and feel more in control of those events and circumstances that emotionally throw you off base.   

Learn more about our MindMastery Workshop