by Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT
“But, I don’t want them to feel guilty”
This is a phrase I hear over and over again in my office after someone has been deeply hurt or impacted by their partner’s behavior.
There is deep pain associated with allowing someone to feel guilt or remorse about hurtful treatment of us.
Why are we so afraid of guilt? Healthy Guilt is one of the most pro social emotions we have. It sets us straight. It’s how we feel when we act against our own core values and beliefs. It helps us to recognize our wrong doings, apologize, and maintain relationships. It’s a part of empathy. It’s the opposite of sociopathy.
Guilt is “I’ve messed up. I hurt you. I made a wrong choice. I behaved badly” while shame is “I am bad. My core is rotten. I am a wrong choice. I am bad”. We do not want to shame others. Shame goes deep and is hard to turn around.
There are reasons to feel healthy guilt. It’s not a pleasant feeling but it’s meant to motivate us towards recognizing our wrong doings and actively correcting them. If you’ve been hurt & your partner expresses guilt that’s a good sign! It means they are willing to come out of the dark and be a part of the healing.
A few points:
1. You cannot make anyone feel an emotion, however you can allow it. If someone has hurt you, then allowing them to feel guilty is appropriate.
2. Know the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt can be corrected. If someone feels guilty, allow them to correct what they’ve done and then move on. Recognize when you’re shaming someone and hold yourself accountable for that.
3. If you’ve done something wrong and you feel the pit in your stomach don’t allow it to turn into a shame spiral. Allow it to activate you. Guilt says “I can fix this. I can say sorry”.
4. Recognize that when you say “I don’t want you to feel —-“ you are attempting to control another person. You cannot control another person or their emotions.
5. There is also unhealthy guilt. This is the guilt we feel about not being able to do something we never agreed to but feel beholden to OR the guilt we feel when we are told we are responsible for other people’s emotions and behaviors. More on this in another post.
Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT is a licensed marriage therapist in Philadelphia. Elizabeth supports individuals and couples improve the relationship they have with themselves and others through better communication, self soothing, and a clear understanding of what a successful marriage looks like. She believes that any committed couples who is willing to do the work can walk away from therapy with more clarity and connection in their relationship.