- Mental Health
Feeling Guilty? Take Action - Make Amends
Guilt and Shame are Different Feelings
Guilt is the feeling that you have when you realize you have done or not done something, said or not said something, or perhaps unintentionally harmed another.
Shame, on the other hand, is the feeling that you are bad, not your behaviors or actions, but you, the person.
Guilt Can Motivate, Shame Rarely Does
Guilt motivates some individuals to change; they feel sorry about their behaviors and they want these feelings to stop, so they change.
Shame often paralyzes people. Their opinion of themselves is so distorted that they think they are worthless and undeserving of forgiveness so they will often not try to make amends.
This belief that they are not worthy of forgiveness is deeply felt and in many cases, requires professional help to resolve the underlying issues.
You Can Alleviate Much of Your Guilt if You Change
Other people talk about feeling guilty and do nothing about the behaviors that prompted the guilt in the first place. Just saying that you "feel guilty" is counter-productive. Saying it does not necessarily motivate people to change.
Having the feeling and being motivated to do something different, must be followed up with actions.
You may just be saying you feel guilty because you ought to, or to placate someone, or to appear remorseful to others. Why would someone do that; to gain a better image of themselves with others? Alternatively, people will talk about and may even want to do something to alleviate their guilt, but create obstacles and barriers to taking action.
Feeling Guilty Because We "Should"
As a parent, I told my children to do and not do things, that I did. We tell them to clean their room, and our garage looks like the aftermath of a tornado. We tell them to not drink out of the carton, then kill the last swig of orange juice because there's so little. Or we caution them about abiding by the law then get a speeding ticket.
Clearly if the kids caught the parents or knew about the ticket, Mom or Dad might be embarrassed and feel guilty for being hypocritical, but would they do the same thing again? Probably they would and just make sure the kids were unaware.
Are there skeletons in your closet that you need to discuss?
Would you feel better making amends?
Can’t Make Direct Amends for Your Actions? Then Make Indirect Amends
People will say that they cannot get over their guilt and correct situations because they cannot make direct amends to someone, usually someone who is deceased. They can use this continuing guilt as an excuse to relapse.
If you stole from, maligned, or in any way harmed a person who is deceased, there can be guilt that you don't think you can resolve. However, there are ways to honor them that might relieve some of your guilt.
I have one friend in recovery who gives $500. per year to Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s Love Light Tree in honor of her mother for all the times that she stole from her.
She did not get into recovery before her mother’s death. Because she was not there for her mother, and others were, she is appreciative of the care her mom received in hospice. So, her donation is her way of making financial restitution for her thefts and helping others receive care.
A Direct Amends Would Cause Additional Pain
Even when the individuals are alive, there are some amends that should always be made indirectly. Take the issue of affairs. You know if you directly approached the spouse, you might make amends, but what if they didn't know about the relationship?
You know that you would create additional pain if you approached them, yet you still feel guilty when you review your behaviors and actions and want to help correct the situation.
For this reason, you commit to not have affairs and then honor this commitment. When you honor this commitment, you are making indirect amends, which means you will not hurt other spouses in the future.
Guilt Drains You, Making Amends Can Provide Relief
Making amends to people and institutions can free you from the burden of your guilt when you either publicly or privately acknowledge your wrongful actions. Guilt produces fear – of exposure, embarrassment and disappointment from others.
When my father traveled for business and was out of town for a monthly bridge game, I would go in his place with my mother. I usually made a beeline to the medicine cabinet of the hosting couple and stole prescription medications.
It was unbelievable to me how many elderly people sprained an ankle or a wrist and got prescriptions for 60 pain pills.
Possibly thinking that they just might need one for something else, they just left them in their medicine cabinets. I did not take the whole bottle so that they wouldn't notice.
When I got into recovery, I felt guilty for my actions and contacted all of the couples in the bridge club. I felt relief when I was honest and made amends. Making the decision to admit what I had done seemed less burdensome than carrying the guilt
When I asked what I needed to do to correct the situation, one of my mother’s friends asked me to speak to her daughter who was abusing alcohol. In speaking with her daughter, she mentioned that her mom always thought she took the pills, so she was glad that I confessed.
We talked about her guilt over actions that she did as well. She made a commitment to enter rehab and now has almost twenty-two years in recovery. We both use our respective stories to help others find a different path and reinforce that guilt prompted both of us to make significant changes in our lives.
Amends and Atonement for the Individual
Avoiding Only Adds to the Guilt
I have been in long-term recovery now for almost 27 years, and firmly believe that when I avoid a situation, person, or subject, there tends to be guilt attached to some of my behaviors.
I no longer steal medications, but there are other ways that I know are less than spiritually motivated. A friend going through a rough patch and I hear about it, but do not bother to pick up the phone. I tell myself that I'm too busy to call now, will get to it tomorrow, and guess what, tomorrow comes, and I don't call. Unfortunately, days might go by and then I feel guilty that I did not reach out when I knew that was the correct thing to do.
Recently, I heard that another friend was dealing with some health issues; we talked about them. However, I was traveling the day he received his test results. Given how many times this individual has listened to me, been a shoulder to cry on, or just been a friend, I felt guilt that I was unable to be there with him.
Rather than add to the weight of the existing guilt, I sent a text and set up a specific time to get together when I returned.
When I weigh out how heavy the guilt is, I am often motivated to do something about it. Developing your emotional scales can help you find balance between how guilty you feel and what you are willing to do to change the behaviors that prompted it.