Like shame, it’s almost always a problem for those who’ve had harmful unwanted or abusive childhood experiences. If you’re struggling with guilt, you’re not alone.
Guilt is thoughts and feelings about things you’ve done.
It involves feeling regret, and usually feeling critical or judgmental toward yourself, for having done something wrong or bad – something that conflicts with your values and with your view of being a good person.
It can include beating up on yourself, for recent actions or things you did a long time ago.
Like shame, guilt is tough to bear. Feeling guilty can make it hard to overcome the negative effects of bad childhood experiences.
Why might you feel guilty about things you didn’t understand or couldn’t control?
None of us are perfect. We’ve all done things that conflict with our values. We’ve all let down or harmed others, including people we respect and love.
Not all guilt is bad. If we couldn’t experience guilt, we’d be in big trouble. We couldn’t admit to ourselves bad things that we’ve done, or make amends. We couldn’t have healthy relationships with friends, neighbors, coworkers, or anyone else we might offend or hurt.
Yet for many people, guilt can spiral out of control. It can be misplaced. It can be harmful, in both their personal and work lives.
About What Happened and How You Responded
For people who had harmful unwanted or abusive childhood experiences, there can be extreme guilt about ways they responded to the experiences and the people involved.
Especially when it comes to harmful childhood sexual experiences, but also for experiences of physical or emotional harm or abuse, it’s common to feel guilty about:
- Not saying ‘no’ or physically resisting.
- ‘Letting’ another person take advantage of one’s vulnerability, including ignorance and curiosity of sex.
- Becoming sexually aroused or experiencing sexual pleasure, even when they didn’t want or like what was happening.
- Having engaged in sexual activity with other children, even if due to manipulation or force by others.
- Not protecting a brother, sister, friend, or other child from someone doing the same harmful sexual, physical and/or emotional things to them.
Unfair, Extreme, and Harmful Guilt
Much of the guilt experienced by people who’ve had such experiences is basically unfair to themselves: It is not based on an accurate or objective view of what happened. It does not reflect the fact that there was little they could actually have done – as vulnerable children or confused teenagers – to prevent what happened or to respond differently.
Why might you feel guilty about lots of things, every day?
Much of the guilt is extreme and harmful. It contributes to problems like low self-confidence and low self-respect, to depression and constantly feeling judged by others – all of which can cause serious difficulties in relationships, school and work.
If this sounds like you, you are not alone. These are normal human responses to harmful unwanted or abusive childhood experiences.
Of course, no matter how normal it is, it’s a lot to deal with. I understand.
I certainly don’t want you to feel guilty about feeling too much guilt! But I’m also not saying that you might not be right to feel some guilt about some things you’ve done or not done (again, some guilt is healthy).
I’m just pointing out something you probably already know, or are starting to suspect: sometimes you feel guilty about things that, as a child or teenager, you were unable to understand or control under the circumstances, and that you know were not really your fault or responsibility.
If this sounds like you, maybe you already see much of your guilt as ‘irrational.’ But as you may also have discovered by now, knowing it’s irrational in some way does not mean it just goes away. Or that it stops making you feel really bad.
You can learn to stop beating up on yourself.
Furthermore, such extreme and ‘irrational’ guilt may not be limited to how you feel about those harmful unwanted or abusive childhood experiences. You may be feeling overly guilty about all kinds of thingsin your life. Every day you may be coming up with more reasons to feel really guilty. Again, if this sounds like you, you are definitely not alone.
Sources of Extreme Guilt
There can be many reasons why such extreme and irrational guilt keeps coming up and doesn’t just go away, even when we understand that’s what it is.
We won’t try to explain them all here, but will mention three common ones:
- Maybe parents, teachers, religious or other authorities repeatedly made you feel guilty for things that weren’t your fault.
- Maybe when you did do things worth feeling some guilt about, you were made to feel extremely guilty, and led to believe that making amends was impossible.
- Maybe you came to believe (without necessarily realizing it) that blaming yourself was better than believing that you had little or no control over what happened, and came to see ‘it’s my fault’ or ‘I have no control’ as the only two possibilities.
Guilt Can Be Overcome
Thankfully, as with the worst shame, it is entirely possible to overcome such deeply ingrained, ‘irrational’ and extreme guilt.
It can take time, and some people need considerable help, including professional help, along the way. But it can happen.
Many other men and women with histories of harmful unwanted or abusive childhood experiences have learned to stop beating up on themselves for things that weren’t their fault. Many other men and women like you have learned how to make amends when they can, and to truly forgive themselves.