Almost two decades ago when I was going through a divorce, I learned there are two different kinds of guilt feelings--Realistic Guilt and Unrealistic Guilt. Do you know the difference?
Realistic Guilt occurs when you have purposely hurt someone else. Realistic guilt is the result of a conscious decision and/or action. You could have avoided the nasty comment. You could have taken the high road. You could have been more compassionate. Instead, you chose to inflict pain on the other person.
Unrealistic Guilt occurs when we take responsibility for a decision or action that was out of our control. For instance, “I feel guilty my parents did not have a better life.” Unrealistic. How in the world could you possibly have any control over how your parents lived their lives?
Yet, people often mistake unrealistic guilt for realistic guilt. From my experience, not many people suffer from realistic guilt. While there are people who purposely hurt other people, I believe the majority of society refrains from malicious intent. For the most part, I think people do not know the proper label for their feeling and just label it guilt from lack of a better definition. Regret may be a better moniker for the feeling. Sadness might be a better description. Perhaps the feeling is anger, not guilt. Therefore, understanding your feelings and naming them properly is important. When trying to determine whether guilt is realistic or unrealistic, give yourself this test. Did I knowingly and purposely cause harm to another person? If you answer yes, then you should feel guilt. If you answered no, then you need to dig deeper into the feeling.
Once you determine the root of your feeling, you next must decide a course of action. If you suffer realistic guilt, you must apologize to the offended party and try to right the wrong. Since you've just learned that unrealistic guilt is actually another feeling, how do you decide on an action? As I said above, you first have to identify the true feeling before you can take action.
For a number of years, I felt guilt over not wanting to spend more time with my mother. After all, she lived alone, she couldn't drive, she had no friends, and I was responsible for moving her to Ohio. Surely, my responsibility was to make mother's life better. By putting my own feelings to the above test, I realized my guilt was unrealistic. What I learned was my true feeling was anger. I was angry at having to be the sole caregiver for my mother. I was angry that the responsibility for mother rested entirely on my shoulders. I resented my mother for putting me in this position. Mother had plenty of opportunity to make friends and feel included in her community. She chose not to do so. I was not responsible for her decision. Although mother could no longer drive, she was given opportunities to get out, and she chose not to take those opportunities. I did not force her to stay encapsulated in her apartment. I was responsible for moving her to Ohio, as she was no longer able to function on her own in Florida. I would have felt much worse if something happened to her in Florida because I failed to act in her best interest.
Once I determined that anger was the root of my feelings, not guilt, I then focused on healing the anger. Being aware anger was the true feeling freed me to process the anger and move to acceptance. In no way should you believe this was a simple journey. Processing the anger took several years for me, but I did eventually achieve peace and forgiveness. Differentiating between the feelings of anger and guilt was instrumental in my success.