What is False Guilt and Why Do We Experience It?

I was just recently introduced to the idea of false guilt. I am finding the distinction between false and true guilt incredibly helpful in my own life. There are many nuances and subtleties that are very interesting including how this distinction corresponds to self-worth and self-esteem, having poor boundaries as well as being something that people with a particular character structure struggle with more than others. Many of us don’t realize there are actually two different kinds of guilt. There is both true and false guilt. Some have even used the terms healthy and unhealthy guilt although, I disagree with the use of these words so I’ll stick to true and false guilt. What exactly is the difference?

True guilt is characterized by feeling guilt for doing something that violates your personal set of values.

For example, in a moment of anger, you might say something mean to a partner or to a good friend. Feelings of guilt might appear right away or after some time has passed when the anger subsides. Either way, guilt shows up for saying something vicious and there is remorse for harming someone you love and care about. This is healthy guilt and hopefully results in apology and repair with that person. It is natural to feel remorse for an action that violates your set of ethics

False guilt, on the other hand, is a sense of guilt for something that doesn’t actually violate your set of values.

This can look a variety of ways. For example, I could say something in disagreement with someone. Let’s say that this might be a political or religious opinion. I see that my opinion has visibly angered someone, or that they have become saddened by what I said. They might shut down and retreat away from me. I could feel guilt for “making this person feel this way.” Does this sound familiar? I said something that is in line with my own set of values, and I could have even said it in the most caring and compassionate way possible, further being in line with my set of ethics. Yet, I still feel guilt for how this has impacted someone else. The possibility of even feeling shame is there. I might think that it’s my fault for making this person feel insecure, attacked, defensive or upset. This becomes even more insidious when someone might be putting you on a “guilt trip.” This is someone trying to make you feel responsible for their feelings. It is inevitable to have an impact you didn’t intend. Learning how to navigate interpersonal conflict better will necessitate better boundaries in the sense of knowing where our responsibility begins and where it ends.

An option here would be to say that you feel bad for how this has impacted this person, reassure them that you care for them and respect them (only if it’s honest), but without compromising your set of values. Stay engaged in conversation. Let them know that you care about how they think and feel. This is different than allowing their feelings to become your responsibility. That is false guilt. Another way that situation could turn out is: I could withhold my true thoughts and feelings from someone because I am afraid of hurting their feelings. I could fear that if I hurt this person’s feelings then they will try to retaliate through being angry or mean to me or perhaps I am afraid that resentment will build up and they will eventually explode on me. By withholding my true thoughts and feelings I could even be upset with myself for not being “stronger” or more true to myself. Many of my clients fear hurting others feelings by being honest about their own feelings. This creates frozenness. I can’t be honest with my thoughts and feelings for fear of their impact. Not only does this prevent this person from knowing me on a deeper level but it will also build resentment towards oneself. It’s a lose/lose situation.

There is a strong tendency for people with a more nurturing, care-taking, diplomatic, peacekeeping disposition to experience false guilt. There must be a clear sense of who I am and who you are; what is my responsibility and what isn’t my responsibility. It requires a lot of ego strength to be able to handle being mis-seen, misjudged, disliked by others and not have it keep you frozen from saying what you need to say and feel what you’re feeling. The feeling of duty to always be nice to others at the expense of being honest and having healthy conflict can be a serious detriment. In order to improve your boundaries and ability to discern between true and false guilt, you need to have a more solid sense of self-worth and self-esteem and you need to have some good boundaries.

There is also a spectrum of vulnerability and care that we all have with those around us. We care more about what our lovers, partners, parents, family members, and best friends think about us. We care much more about their opinions and feelings about us than we would a stranger walking down the street or even a co-worker or colleague. We care more about their well being and are more willing to compromise who we are and how we show up in order to not risk harming them with our words or actions. likewise, hopefully, these people are more likely to give us some space, room and liberty to make mistakes and to be more of ourselves without inhibition.

It is important to know that this is a practice. There will be many mistakes. Practicing and making mistakes builds confidence. We all need to know that we can be true to ourselves and we can also be skillful in how we communicate with others. We can be true to our values of being kind and compassionate in our actions and speech without compromising integrity. It is important to allow ourselves and others to make mistakes. We must allow stumbling through communicating our thoughts and feelings without as much skill as we might like. We need to feel that even though we make mistakes and that even though we have disagreements that we can still love and accept each other. This is what we are afraid of losing: that if I hurt your feelings you will no longer like, love, or accept me.

Here is a helpful practice to distinguish between true and false guilt:

  1. Observe when you feel guilty.
  2. When you notice feelings of guilt, ask yourself: “Did I violate any of my personal values?”
  3. If yes, then repair as best you can.
  4. If no, then ask: “Am I afraid that I upset someone through my actions, and that they may retaliate?”
  5. If yes, then you are experiencing false guilt.
  6. Recognize it, label it, let go of it.

As you practice this more, your boundaries and ability for discernment will improve. Your ability to say no in your life will increase. It will be easier to have small, little conflicts along the way rather than waiting until something boils over into a larger more risky conflict. In my Individual Therapy sessions we will practice this, among other techniques and strategies.

Be kind to yourselves and to each other. We are all in this together.

To learn more about my Boulder, Colorado practice, visit my website at danmichels.com. 

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