Why do I always feel so guilty? This is a question I’ve struggled with ever since I was little. I have always been a people pleaser and I don’t like to let anyone down, so when something happens that might disappoint someone, cue the wave of guilt that washes over me from head to toe.
Get in a stupid fight with your parents? Lie to a friend to avoid hurting their feelings? Steal something from a sibling that they said you couldn’t borrow and then ruin it?
Of course it’s completely rational to feel guilty about things like these. In fact, guilt can sometimes be a healthy response to a situation if we a) did indeed do something that we knew would upset someone else and b) react to it in the correct way by apologizing or taking any other necessary steps to right what we did wrong. Guilt can be a catalyst for mending relationships, helping us grow closer together, getting to know ourselves better and strengthening our moral sense of right and wrong.
However, some of us, myself included, can sometimes go overboard on the guilt train and this can lead to unhealthy patterns in our lives. There are things I did when I was little, over a decade ago, that I feel guilty about to this day.
Once I went off with a friend into the woods during my dad’s soccer game and ripped my pants climbing on some rocks. My dad bought me those pants. I felt so guilty and was terrified to tell him. I’m sure he never thinks about that anymore –– he probably doesn’t even remember –– but I still cringe when it crosses my mind.
There are even things that are no fault of my own that I feel guilty about. About a month ago, I was behind an older man in the Starbucks line while there was a buy-one-get-one-free deal on cookies. I heard him say something to the cashier about giving his free cookie to me but before he could finish his sentence, an older woman came out of nowhere and very loudly and publicly handed me her cookie coupon. The old man’s plan was foiled. Both of these strangers were just trying to do something nice for a fellow human, and somehow I was left feeling guilty about the whole situation because I felt like the old man was disappointed. But what could I have done to remedy the situation? Absolutely nothing. So why do I still feel this way?
Was the situation in Starbucks my fault? No. Did I rip the pants my dad bought me on purpose? No. But these are just two examples of similar situations that still haunt me with feelings of guilt.
I just want people to be happy and I don’t like feeling like I’ve gotten in the way of someone else’s happiness. I’m a fixer and when things go wrong, I often tend to blame myself, take full responsibility (even if it wasn’t my fault) and proceed to stress about what I can do to fix it. I also spend a good amount of time stressing over what I can do to avoid disappointing people, and therefore to avoid feeling guilty. This is when it becomes unhealthy.
So why do I feel this way and why have I developed these patterns?
Maybe as a result of my family situation when I was a child, I feel pressured to always make the right decision and please everyone. There was a lot of anxiety related to decisions I made as a child and I seem to have carried that over. To this day all my major decisions are anxiety-ridden and I think too much about the effects my decisions will have on others, even if they are decisions solely about my own life.
And maybe because I felt like I disappointed my parents so often when I was little, I subconsciously took it upon myself to do my best to never let things like that happen again. Most of us can usually pinpoint the root of our patterns in our childhood, whether we realize it or not. If you can’t pinpoint it yourself, it might be helpful to see a therapist who might be able to talk you through your past experiences objectively.
So how do we manage feelings like these? Staying busy is always an option, but not always the best option. Recently, the thing that has helped me most is remembering that I am not responsible for anyone else’s happiness. None of us are responsible for anyone’s happiness except our own.
Sure, people can disappoint each other from time to time, but in the end our actions can never make or break someone else’s state of mind. Another thing to do is to squash the “what if’s.” I am a very anxious and calculating decision-maker and am constantly thinking about the what if’s and consequences of everything I do.
But maybe instead of asking what if, we can start to ask what’s true. And if we can remember that what’s true is that we control only ourselves and that we are just doing our best, we can free ourselves from guilt. It’s a slow process, but I think it’s worth it.
Do you have any tips to manage your guilt or theories as to why we might feel this way?