Guilt is a universal language that translates into all cultures, gender identities, and ages. It grows and changes as we age, and can follow us around, developing, mutating, and expanding. The actual feeling of guilt can be gnawing, all-consuming, and omnipresent, and change who we are as a person, at our core.
Guilt isn’t always all bad. After all, it exists. Feelings of guilt can shift the power dynamic in a relationship, and are an indicator of an operating conscience—no sociopaths here! But all jokes aside, the gut-wrenching, nerve-wracking, mood-flattening urge to atone for wrongdoings is healthy and purposeful, to an extent. Prolonged guilt, especially guilt that is inflicted upon us by others, is often unproductive.
The types of guilt we’re discussing today are niche to the nuclear family. Feelings of guilt as a child for not being enough or doing enough, and the guilt of a parent for expecting too much or not feeling proud of our parenting skills are both modes of guilt that do more harm than good in familial relationships, as well as our relationships with ourselves.
Feelings of guilt are an incredibly heavy burden to bear. When a child is a sufferer of guilt inflicted upon them by adults, typically the ones in charge of caring for that child, psychic damage can ensue. In many of these cases, guilt is used as an influential tactic, or a way for a mentally unhealthy parent to unleash burdens and expectations on their child, perhaps to make up for their own shortcomings.
Long-term guilt on a young child’s brain can have devastating effects on their mental health in the future. Studies show that overwhelming a child with an intense or consistent level of shame can lead to depression and anxiety in their adult years, which should come as no surprise. While we want to take advantage of teachable moments and allow children to feel remorse for wrongdoings, we don’t want to lay excessive expectations, or reinforce feelings of guilt.
Our formative years are a crucial time to accept our mistakes and learn from them, not hold onto them for dear life. It is possible to break free from childhood guilt as we get older and undo the trauma that it causes, however, it takes committed work and evaluation, and often the help of a professional.
Parental guilt also comes from a place of authenticity, in that it’s the yearning to be a better parent. But the feelings of shame and guilt do not translate to our children. Our children do not benefit from our feelings of remorse for the way we parented, or the lack of parenting we brought to the relationship. In fact, our children, no matter what age (adult children, too) are typically further burdened by parental guilt, in that they feel it’s their duty to unburden the parent and reinforce their skills as a caregiver. This is not their cross to bear.
In fact, it should be no one’s cross to bear indefinitely. While feelings of guilt and cravings for atonement are healthy and come from a loving place, it’s important to address them as such, and act on them rather than ruminate within them. Access our faults, accept our human nature, and release the unavailing, restrictive feelings of chronic guilt. One of the most effective ways to truly atone for our misgivings and misdoings is to leave guilt in the rear-view, and work on the present moment.