Why we feel guilty — and how to set healthy boundaries without guilt.
How is it that some people are able to set healthy boundaries, while guilt keeps others stuck in unhealthy patterns, relationships, and situations? Here’s why some of us feel guilt, and how to overcome it to prioritize self-care without feeling bad about it.
What Causes Guilt?
We’re not born with the tendency to feel guilty. Guilt is something that we learn — through childhood experiences. You can probably think of at least one or two people who don’t seem to feel guilt at all, while others are consumed by it no matter how unwarranted it may seem.
As children, we learn who we are and how the world works through experiences. The unconscious part of the brain is constantly interpreting experiences and stimuli, based on previous experiences — and then adding to the existing structure of self-image and worldview.
As adults, that unconscious part of the brain refers to those childhood references that “prove” self-image and worldview — and it then automatically triggers chemicals that cause sensations we recognize as emotions. Feelings of guilt, along with all other negative emotions, are created by stress chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol.
What’s Happening Behind the Scenes
- Somewhere in our childhood, we learned that we are not worthy, or “bad”, or that others are more important, or that we have to work hard, or that we should be grateful for any attention, or that it’s dangerous to feel good, or that we’ll be in trouble unless we’re doing something, or that suffering is the only way to get approval, or… whatever other limiting beliefs we may be holding about ourselves or the world.
- As adults, as we think about creating boundaries, or prioritizing self-care — or sometimes, even about our own sanity or survival — the brain refers to those references in the form of implicit (unconscious) childhood memories that prove those limiting beliefs. That unconscious part of the brain then triggers the stress chemicals that create the negative feelings that keep us from taking that action. The purpose is to keep us “safe” by keeping us in alignment with those references. The…