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How to Overcome Emotions That Are Weighing You Down

November 4, 2013
Carolyn Gregoire

Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology, was obsessed with guilt. In his psychological framework, the painful emotion (a tension between the super-ego, or conscience, and the acting ego) played a critical role in the development of depression -- and it was as a major roadblock in the pursuit of happiness.

"The price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt," Freud wrote in his 1930 sociological masterpiece, Civilization and its Discontents, arguing that modern societies reinforce our sense of internal-stemming guilt.

While our modern understanding of human behavior has moved beyond many elements of the Freudian psychological framework, his analysis of guilt remains significant, and has been supported by some recent research.

Anyone who's experienced guilt -- which is to say, everyone -- knows that it can cause a great deal of suffering, and can easily keep you from enjoying your life. Without question, guilt can be useful and essential; it can prompt us to evaluate our thoughts and actions, and function as a moral checks-and-balances system. But when guilt takes over, any misstep can become a catalyst for self-doubt, shame, and even depression.

Here are six things you should know about guilt -- and how to keep it from controlling your life.

It can (literally) weigh you down.

According to new research from University of Waterloo and Princeton University, a heightened sense of guilt can actually correspond with feelings of increased weight. The researchers wanted to see if there was any truth to the popular notions of "carrying guilt" and of guilt "weighing" on one's conscience. And what they found was fascinating.

"We found that recalling personal unethical acts led participants to report increased subjective body weight as compared to recalling ethical acts, unethical acts of others or no recall," Princeton researcher Martin Day said in a statement. "We also found that this increased sense of weight was related to participants' heightened feelings of guilt, and not other negative emotions, such as sadness or disgust."

It contributes to depression.

A 2012 brain scanning study found that those who are or have been depressed have a heightened guilt response. For those who have suffered from depression, feeling guilt is less associated with a knowledge of socially acceptable behavior than it is for non-depressed individuals -- meaning that those who are depressed may engage in excessive self-blame in a way that is not solution-oriented.

“The scans revealed that the people with a history of depression did not ‘couple’ the brain regions associated with guilt and knowledge of appropriate behavior together as strongly as the never depressed control group do,” the University of Manchester's Roland Zahn said. "This could reflect a lack of access to details about what exactly was inappropriate about their behavior when feeling guilty, thereby extending guilt to things they are not responsible for and feeling guilty for everything.”

It might be the reason you're procrastinating.

Many studies have found that guilt is a key factor in procrastination. We feel bad about something we've done, and so we hesitate to start a new task, perhaps for fear of making another error. And in turn, procrastinating causes us to feel guilty, which often undermines the good feeling we may have gotten from avoiding the task in the first place.

Need to finally get something done? Research has found that by forgiving yourself for procrastinating, you can actually prevent future procrastination.

Women really are more prone to guilt.

Research supports the cultural stereotype of women as the more guilt-prone sex. A 2010 Spanish study found that women experience guilt more frequently and more intensely than men, and also score higher on measures of interpersonal sensitivity than men. The difference in guilt levels between men and women in the 40-50-year-old age group was particularly stark. The researchers noted that lack of interpersonal sensitivity could be a central contributing factor to low levels of guilt among men.

It's not a very good motivator.

Many psychologists believe guilt can prompt us to self-correct after doing something wrong -- or thinking we've done something wrong -- whether it's eating one too many slices of cake or canceling plans with a friend at the last minute. Modest amounts of guilt have been shown deter bad behavior. But runaway guilt can actually keep you stuck in patterns of bad behavior -- studies have shown that guilt can dip into (and deplete) our reserves of willpower.

"Feeling guilty is a cop-out. You feel guilty so you don't have to take responsibility," Cara Paiuk wrote in a Huffington Post blog. "Instead of actually taking action and fixing the situation, you choose to just feel 'guilty' about it. It appears as "Shoulda coulda woulda," but the point is, you didn't. Instead of moving on, guilt lets you live in the past and avoid the present."

So next time you get caught in a guilt spiral, remember: it may not be the most effective way to motivate you to lose those last five pounds, become a better mother, or accomplish any other goal that's important to you.

It's not the same as shame -- but the two feelings are intertwined.

While shame relates to the self, guilt has more to do with others, according to psychologist Joseph Burgo. Guilt generally involves feeling bad about a particular wrong action and the way it may have affected others, while shame is the painful feeling that there is something wrong or bad about who you are.

"The difference between shame and guilt is the difference between 'I am bad' and 'I did something bad,'" "Daring Greatly" author Brene Brown told Oprah, explaining that shame is the more harmful emotion.

But the two feelings often go hand in hand, and what they do have in common is that they keep us stuck in the past, ruminating about our wrongdoings and perceived shortcomings. And in excess, neither gets us closer to truly coming to terms with the things we've done wrong or changing the parts of ourselves that we're uncomfortable with.