Guilt can be a useful and effective gauge for our actions. When we behave in a way that is outside of our value system or we have inflicted harm in some way to someone else, guilt is one of the most telling signs. If we use that feeling to reflect, make amends and adjust our behaviour for the future it is powerful and useful in our growth and is known as an ‘adaptive’ tool. But what if feelings of guilt linger non-stop for no reason in particular? What if you feel guilty for things that you didn’t do or couldn’t control? This is ‘maladaptive’ guilt, and it is not only unhelpful but can cause chaos in our mind. In this article we’ll explore this concept and some ways to cope.
What is it?
Maladaptive guilt is when a person feels intense or persistent guilt over situations that are unrelated to them, they have no control over or reflects an exaggerated guilt response to an event. For example, perhaps you’re in a meeting and suddenly have forgotten the name of your new co-worker – you make a quick apology and there is no major upset however the event remains with you for days, weeks or even years following the incident.
Feeling as though what you did was such a terrible thing that you beat yourself up over it extensively. It is far more common than we think and many of us get caught in the cycle of feeling guilty constantly over things that don’t warrant such a response. It is known as ‘maladaptive’ as it doesn’t help us create positive changes in our lives it rather keeps us in a negative thought cycle.
How does it impact us?
This type of guilt is dangerous as it can cause overthinking, shame, depression and even self-hatred. It also steals joy from our lives in the sense that we struggle to remain present and to assess situations fairly.
How do we cope?
This type of guilt is often associated with other factors such as early childhood experiences, depression and anxiety that need addressing but there are useful tools that can help:
- Mindfulness practice – using guided meditations online or cognitive behavioural tools to practice remaining grounded and calm in the present moment.
- Breathing exercises – sometimes we enter a guilt spiral, and it triggers a physiological response (our breathing quickens, our heart rate goes up and we can feel panicked). This heightens the stress and often means we’re unable to think clearly about the situation. ‘Box breathing’ or ‘4-7-8 breathing’ exercises online are easy to do and allow us the space to think clearly.
- Self-compassion – practicing self-compassion is hugely important with unhealthy guilt. Remembering that you are human and that no one is expecting you to be perfect. Making a mistake does not warrant torturing yourself.
- Guided questions – maladaptive guilt can strip us of our logic as we become lost in negative feelings. Asking a set of questions to assess whether the guilt is misplaced or not can be helpful. For example: ‘Am I expecting myself to be perfect all the time?’ / ‘Would I be this hard on a friend/loved one who did the same thing?’ / ‘Was this truly within my control?’
- Therapy – if it feels like you’re lost in the haze of guilt over everything in your life, bring it up to your therapist to work through together.
This article was written by Lauren Hall, pre-accredited and newly qualified Psychotherapist at The DMC Clinic. If you are affected by the issues mentioned above, you can book an appointment. If you would like to discuss how any of the topics mentioned above are impacting your mental health, please contact The DMC Clinic to arrange an appointment.
Donohue MR, Tillman R, Perino MT, Whalen DJ, Luby J, Barch DM. Prevalence and correlates of maladaptive guilt in middle childhood. J Affect Disord. 2020 Feb 15;263:64-71. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2019.11.075. Epub 2019 Nov 13. PMID: 31818798; PMCID: PMC7448288.