As codependents, we suffer from guilt because we have unrealistically high expectations for ourselves, we’re people-pleasers and worry about what others think of us, we’re sensitive to criticism, and we’re afraid of conflict and rejection.
Appropriate vs. inappropriate guilt
Sometimes guilt is appropriate. When you’ve truly done something wrong, you should feel bad about it. In such situations, feeling bad can motivate you to change or do better. However, I’m not suggesting that you should feel so bad that you’re constantly criticizing yourself, losing sleep over it, or using it as proof that you’re 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 didn’t do, couldn’t control, or that weren’t their responsibility.
The problem with codependent guilt
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 we’ve accepted for so long can leave us feeling like we’re failing; we’re 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.
Examples of codependent guilt
Let’s take a look at two examples of codependent guilt.
Lynn’s husband Matt constantly blames her for all sorts of problems – problems with his boss, his weight gain, their son’s poor grades, and so on. Matt is easily frustrated and Lynn doesn’t like conflict, so she acquiesces, apologizes, and takes the blame for things that aren’t even in her control. Lynn successfully avoids arguments by accepting the blame, but she feels guilty – an inappropriate guilt because she isn’t responsible for her husband’s relationship with his boss or his weight, nor is she the sole cause of their son’s 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 she’s not being a loving and dutiful daughter; she’s failing to meet her family’s expectations. However, Jasmine’s mother has always been harsh and critical. She’s demanding and self-righteous and it’s very stressful for Jasmine to be around her. She continues to criticize Jasmine’s 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 Lynn’s and Jasmine’s are familiar patterns that began in childhood when they were the target of a parent’s or sibling’s 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 isn’t helpful. It deteriorates self-esteem and can contribute to anger, resentment, and self-criticism.
Reducing codependent guilt
To reduce inappropriate guilt, you have to change your thinking. You have to believe that you don’t have to be perfect and please everyone, you’re not responsible for what other people do or what’s not in your control, and it’s OK to make your own choices and do what’s best for you.
The following reflective questions or journal prompts can help you gain insight about your guilt, determine if it’s 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 you’re doing something wrong. What specifically do you think you’re 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 people’s 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 what’s right for you?
What will happen if you aren’t perfect or don’t live up to your expectations?
How can you modify your expectations so they reflect what’s 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 isn’t helpful and doesn’t tend to promote learning and changing. Self-compassion is acknowledging when you’re 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 you’re 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 what’s out of your control.
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