As codependents, we suffer from guilt because we have unrealistically high expectations for ourselves, were people-pleasers and worry about what others think of us, were sensitive to criticism, and were afraid of conflict and rejection.
Sometimes guilt is appropriate. When youve truly done something wrong, you should feel bad about it. In such situations, feeling bad can motivate you to change or do better. However, Im not suggesting that you should feel so bad that youre constantly criticizing yourself, losing sleep over it, or using it as proof that youre a failure or unworthy. Accepting your mistakes, forgiving yourself, and making amends (if needed) are healthy components of self-esteem and allow you to learn from your mistakes and move on.
On the other hand, many codependents experience inappropriate guilt; they feel bad about things they didnt do, couldnt control, or that werent their responsibility.
Inappropriate guilt can keep codependents from setting boundaries, detaching from negative or draining people, taking care of ourselves, living fully and authentically. Guilt keeps us living for other people – being who they want us to be and doing what they expect us to do. Breaking out of the roles weve accepted for so long can leave us feeling like were failing; were not meeting expectations and people will be mad or disappointed with us. This is very painful for codependents as we pride ourselves on being caring, giving, and dependable.
Lets take a look at two examples of codependent guilt.
Lynns husband Matt constantly blames her for all sorts of problems problems with his boss, his weight gain, their sons poor grades, and so on. Matt is easily frustrated and Lynn doesnt like conflict, so she acquiesces, apologizes, and takes the blame for things that arent even in her control. Lynn successfully avoids arguments by accepting the blame, but she feels guilty an inappropriate guilt because she isnt responsible for her husbands relationship with his boss or his weight, nor is she the sole cause of their sons school difficulties.
Jasmine feels guilty for not inviting her elderly mother to come live with her. As the oldest daughter, she knows her family expects her to take care of their Mom in old age. She feels like shes not being a loving and dutiful daughter; shes failing to meet her familys expectations. However, Jasmines mother has always been harsh and critical. Shes demanding and self-righteous and its very stressful for Jasmine to be around her. She continues to criticize Jasmines career choice, parenting, and appearance. So, although Jasmine knows it would be detrimental to her emotional health to live with her mother, she feels guilty about it and is considering having her Mom live with her anyway.
For many codependents, dynamics like Lynns and Jasmines are familiar patterns that began in childhood when they were the target of a parents or siblings blaming or scapegoating. Addicts and narcissists often use guilt to manipulate and get what they want. And they use projection as a way to deny their hurtful behavior and refuse to take responsibility for their actions.
As I mentioned, appropriate guilt feeling bad when you did something wrong can help you to learn and do better when it accompanies self-forgiveness. But, when your guilt is based on unrealistic expectations, perfectionist ideals, distorted thoughts, and fear, it isnt helpful. It deteriorates self-esteem and can contribute to anger, resentment, and self-criticism.
To reduce inappropriate guilt, you have to change your thinking. You have to believe that you dont have to be perfect and please everyone, youre not responsible for what other people do or whats not in your control, and its OK to make your own choices and do whats best for you.
The following reflective questions or journal prompts can help you gain insight about your guilt, determine if its accurate, and set more realistic expectations for yourself. For this exercise, choose just one thing you feel guilty about and answer the questions based on that situation. You can repeat the exercise later with other situations, if you like.
What do you feel guilty about?
What does guilt prevent you from doing? (Setting boundaries, practicing self-care, speaking up for yourself, feeling good about yourself, etc.)
How does this negatively impact you?
Guilt is based on a belief that youre doing something wrong. What specifically do you think youre doing wrong?
Now, you want to determine if this is appropriate guilt (you actually did something wrong) or inappropriate guilt (based on unrealistic expectations, distorted thoughts, other peoples ideas about how you should behave).
How do others expect you to behave in this situation?
Do you agree with these expectations?
How do you think you should act in this situation?
Who gets to decide whats right for you?
What will happen if you arent perfect or dont live up to your expectations?
How can you modify your expectations so they reflect whats truly important to you?
Do you recognize any distorted thoughts fueling your guilt? What are they? (You can use this list to check for cognitive distortions.)
Do you think it would be wrong for a friend to do whatever you feel guilty about? Why or why not?
Beating yourself up isnt helpful and doesnt tend to promote learning and changing. Self-compassion is acknowledging when youre suffering and giving yourself loving-kindness and is a much more productive response to guilt.
What can you do or say to yourself to offer yourself comfort and compassion?
Changing your thinking can be a slow process as youre undoing years of thinking in a particular way. You can continue to work on these questions answering them in your journal or using a worksheet version available in my resource library to help you learn to challenge inappropriate guilt and recognize what you should take responsibility for and whats out of your control.