One of the important aspects of improvement and growth is receiving feedback and readjusting, altering, redoing a few things based on that feedback. Pain is a very important feedback mechanism for our body. If something is wrong in the body, it draws our attention through pain, be it a fracture, burn or cut. If one gets acidity and heartburn after eating spicy food, the simple and smart solution would be to learn to avoid spicy food and develop a taste for non- spicy food.
But we would rather have spicy food and pop a pill for acidity than adopt new food habits, wouldn't we?
Psychologically, guilt is supposed to act like a similar feedback mechanism. When we do something which should not have been done, we feel guilty, so that we can learn from that mistake. But instead of learning to do things differently, we devise ways and strategies to cope up with the guilt, or to not feel guilty at all.
Niyati, a 42- year- old mother of two, came with a problem concerning her 14- year- old daughter and 17- year- old son. A part of our conversation went like this...
Niyati: I cannot handle my children…. I don't get them at all. At times I completely lose it.
Therapist: I see. What happens?
N: They don't listen to me at all! They don't give a damn! I feel very frustrated and hopeless.
T: Can you give an example?
N: Three days ago I heard my daughter swearing on the phone. I ignored it for a while but then I really got irritated and asked her to stop.
She just told me off and slammed the door of her room. I felt so angry and helpless…
T: So when you heard your daughter swearing at somebody and you did not like it, you chose to ignore it till it was too much for you?
N: Yes.... I told myself I would just ignore. A week before that we had a huge showdown and my daughter said I was always judging her and overreacting... so after that I decided not to say anything to her at all…
T: So you tried to ignore her swearing on the phone as you promised yourself not to tell her anything.
N: Yes. But then it was too much for me and when I reached my threshold I just went and blasted her.
T: I see. So when you overreacted earlier and it didn't end well, you decided not to tell your daughter anything even if she did something which she should not do.
N: Exactly! Because when I overreacted I felt very guilty, I felt terrible. I don't want to feel that way and I didn't want to overreact next time.
T: But that did not work either. So not only did you choose not to ' overreact', in order to do that initially you chose to not act at all…
N: Yes... and I guess in the process I ended up doing the exact same thing which I did not want…. I shouted at her and she responded violently.
This is what has been happening.... Instead of telling her daughter calmly to mind her language, Niyati waited till she hit her threshold and reacted. She typically goes through these stages in her guilt cycle:
1. Act of ignorance: When we do something without knowing the full consequences, in this case Niyati's first confrontation with her daughter.
2. Realisation of consequences: The daughter feeling judged, angry and Niyati overreacting.
3. Emotional consequences: Guilt.
After this point, the next mature step could have been:
4. Learning: Recognising the overall consequences and learning to act more skilfully. Niyati could learn to talk to her daughter without making her feel judged and vulnerable.
But Niyati responded with an immature coping mechanism to deal with guilt and perpetuated her guilt cycle further as...
5. Act of overcompensation: Completely going overboard and choosing to do the opposite of stage 1 — in this case stopping herself from correcting her daughter calmly and trying to ignore the issue.
6. Emotional meltdown and consequences: In this case, doing exactly what she wanted to avoid, resulting in more guilt and helplessness.
We all go through Niyati's psychological pattern of ' guiltovercompensation- emotional meltdown' guilt cycle without even recognising it. Sometimes we can also be in denial and keep fooling ourselves by saying that there is nothing to feel guilty about as ' I am right'. As a result we suppress this feedback mechanism. The key to be able to use it to our benefit is selfawareness.
Change your perception: Don't look at guilt as a negative emotion.
Look at it as a feedback mechanism and learn from it.
Be aware: Be vigilant and careful about your strategy to not feel guilty.
Is it overcompensation? Is it denial? Keep asking yourself — what is my guilt telling me? Am I learning? Be patient: Every learning process needs constant effort and time.
Accept yourself: Accept your flaws and don't feel shame as long as you are ready to learn and grow.
Dr Sangbarta Chattopadhyay and Dr Namita Bhuta are medical practitioners, psychotherapists and life coaches Share your problems with them at
dr. sangbarta@ gmail. com