It may come as no surprise that as a relatively self-aware thirty something woman and mother I struggle with frequent feelings of guilt. It seems as professional women we are constantly exposed to reminders of our dual responsibility to care for others, the gratitude we should feel for our freedoms and the importance that we also strive to reach our potential in what is after all a man-made world.
Guilty as charged
Guilt is a negative emotion which motivates us to right a wrong. On a daily basis I feel guilty about what I spend my time doing, guilt about what I spend my time not doing, guilt about time spent away from the family, guilt about time spent away from my studies, guilt about not working, guilt about needing to step back, guilt about what I have and guilt about wanting what I don’t have. Phew! But perhaps you can relate?
I have a diagnosis of both anxiety and depression, both of which are chronic features in my life. At those times when my resistance is low and my illness peaks, guilt pretty much colours much of my emotional experience. Luckily, I have become by necessity emotionally self-aware and through a study of positive psychology I can also understand a bit about the transformative capacity of negative emotions, guilt in particular.
In short, I think it’s time we talked about how we could all be grateful for a bit of guilt.
The truth about feeling grateful is that you can practice it. Through a daily gratitude practice, such as keeping a journal or simply listing three good things, research has shown that over time this can lead to greater wellbeing and more frequent affective experiences of gratitude (Emmons & McCullough, 2003; Seligman, Steen, Park & Peterson, 2005).
Frederickson’s (2004) work on positive emotions has shown that experiencing gratitude often leads to its expression through giving back to others, which in turn creates more opportunities for positive emotions and experiences (broaden and build).
When I kept a daily gratitude journal for 6 weeks this was eventually my experience, but only once I had dealt with the message my guilt was trying to convey as it was interfering somewhat!
As per Seligman et al (2005) it proved insightful to journal three good things plus how I felt about them – to capture the full experience of my gratitude practice. Stepping back, I noticed three things. Primarily by recording and drawing attention to positive events and experiences I was able to relive them, and this led to further positive emotions and experiences. Who wouldn’t enjoy thinking about the good stuff in their life?
Secondly, I began to mentally look for, notice and feel spontaneous in-the-moment gratitude about all sorts of things that I previously overlooked. The kindness of a stranger, a bright cold but sunny day, a hug from my son. Basically, lots of little micro moments of positivity that had perhaps been there for the taking all along.
Thirdly, and this is the important one, that these increasing positive experiences did not remove frequent feelings of guilt. Counting my blessings was basically sometimes uncomfortable.
Guilt and gratitude – one and the same?
When I made a conscious effort to practice gratitude acknowledging those that help and support me, or for my freedom to choose how I spend my time, I felt guilty.
When I tried comparing myself to others worse off than me to try and feel gratitude, this also led to guilt. I began to wonder if this was a common experience.
Robert’s (2004) proposed that gratitude is experienced in a dialectic with negative emotions like resentment, envy and regret. To this I would add guilt as it seemed to be inextricably linked, at least for me. Perhaps this is a common pitfall for those with anxiety when they undertake a gratitude practice?
Given how frequently I felt guilt, I decided to see if it could really be as simple as using these negative intrusions as a reminder or trigger to step back and choose to practice gratitude as well? Second wave positive psychology does consider certainly negative emotions to be motivating: could transforming guilt be a stepping stone towards reaping Frederickson’s (2004) broadening and building benefits of gratitude?
Noticing guilt, I now focus in on its source – what I do have and what I am doing, and rather than wishing away my emotional experience I acknowledge it and add gratitude. This is naturally leading me to identify new capacities for development with a sense of expansiveness about my skills, attention and energy which I now direct towards building new resources and further opportunities for positive and learning experiences.
Grateful for guilt
Taking this a step further, feeling grateful precisely because we experience guilt could open up a more creative and personalised path towards acceptance of our full emotional experience. This is in contrast to the ‘replace your thoughts’ ethos suggested by the go-to treatment for anxiety (CBT, which I personally found had limited success).
Transforming and accepting guilt using gratitude has for me encouraged mindful compassion towards both my negative and positive thoughts and emotions and help me do more than just cope with them.
To me this epitomises a positive psychology which illustrates the benefits of accepting, understanding and learning to work with, rather than against negative emotions like guilt in order to generate the presence of positive and transcendent emotions such as gratitude.
From my experience of deconstructing guilt – it can provide opportunities for gratitude, it is motivating, and it may be a bit of an emotional hack to help us all make a difference.
About the Author: Lena Britnell
‘We Are The Positive Psychology People’