Feeling guilty can be a trait of someone who’s empathic, such as a highly sensitive person. But misplaced guilt is another story.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done? When you think back on some of the mistakes you’ve made, what sort of feelings come up? Perhaps you feel a twinge (or flood) of guilt. This is completely normal. Many of us harbor guilt from mistakes we’ve made, whether it was yesterday or even decades ago.
I can remember one particular incident (saga is more like it) as though it happened yesterday. My upbringing was different from that of my peers. Being raised as a second-generation immigrant under very strict religious constraints, though I loved my family, I often longed for a different life.
A lovely friend of mine named Emma would often tell me about her family. They celebrated Christmas (which my family didn’t). She was also allowed to sleep over at her friends’ houses (I wasn’t). I had just begun an obsession with the 1996 film, Matilda — at the end of the movie, Matilda is adopted by her angelic teacher, Ms. Honey. In my third grade mind, Emma’s family represented the perfect home life to me, and since Matilda had gotten adopted easily enough with a simple signature from her parents, I figured I could do the same.
What if Emma’s parents just adopted me? I would get presents on Christmas morning, I would be allowed to sleep over at my friends’ homes for slumber parties, and I wouldn’t have to attend long, boring religious lectures several times a week. It seemed like the perfect plan to me… but there was a catch.
I figured I would have to convince Emma and her family that I needed rescuing. So I created a bunch of elaborate stories that painted my parents in a terrible light. When I finally told my parents about my plan during a temper tantrum, their reaction showed me how wrong I was. Not only had I been dishonest with Emma and her family, but I had disregarded my parent’s love for me and all they’d provided me with. I remember my mother crying over the fact that I would rather live with another family. I felt like the most awful daughter ever.
Many people would probably feel guilty for doing what I did and likely feel guilty about certain things overall — it’s a natural response to difficult situations and a sign of introspection, which is a good thing. But they may also feel guilty when they’re not at fault. And when it happens too often, it can start to affect how you see yourself, harming your self-esteem. It can even lead to unhealthy behavior — like taking blame for things that aren’t your fault, ignoring your own needs, or even entering abusive control dynamics.
As a result, this sense of misplaced guilt may be even more common among one group of people — those who are more sensitive to their surroundings, both physically and emotionally. These individuals make up about 30 percent of the population and are referred to in research as highly sensitive people (HSPs), which I am. (For reference, around 40 percent of people are average in sensitivity while 20 percent are low in sensitivity.)
The Science Behind High Sensitivity
While everyone is sensitive to an extent, some of us are more sensitive than others. This trait is referred to by researchers as environmental sensitivity — also known as Sensory Processing Sensitivity. And all three levels of environmental sensitivity are considered to be completely healthy and normal.
When someone is close to the high end of the sensitivity continuum, they’re called “highly sensitive people.” Often, they will be deeply in touch with their physical environment(s), as well as with the emotions and feelings of others. This is where their high levels of empathy come into the picture, too. They’re also extremely intuitive — in fact, some researchers believe high sensitivity is linked to giftedness. They’re also deep thinkers and are excellent at picking up on small details others may overlook. In addition, they’re often quite sensitive to textures, noises, and other everyday things in the environment that don’t seem to bother non-HSPs.
And an HSP’s sensitive nature doesn’t just go away — it’s innate, although they can learn to manage overwhelming and overstimulating situations. Similarly, they often feel guilty for things — even when they shouldn’t.
Why HSPs Feel Guilty When They Shouldn’t
Because HSPs’ emotional responsiveness to others is heightened, it’s likely that we have a clear understanding of what we’ve done “wrong.” I’ve often created scenarios in my mind where the severity of what I did was extremely exaggerated. Lots of my time has been spent ruminating on just how terrible my actions have been, which can begin to feel like torture before long.
While feeling guilty can be a trait of someone who’s empathic — after all, it shows they are a caring, thoughtful, conscientious person — misplaced guilt is another story. It’s often related to having a sincere desire to do the right thing and make others happy. Since HSPs have a naturally high level of empathy, they are especially prone to misplaced or excessive guilt.
Misplaced guilt, like all guilt, requires a certain level of reflecting on one’s own behavior. Highly sensitive people are wired for this kind of self-reflection. The leading explanation of what makes some people more sensitive is that differences in their brains help them process information more deeply, at greater length, than other people do.
Of course, this can have many advantages — it leads to tremendous creativity and allows them to make connections between ideas that other people fail to see — but it also has drawbacks. In particular, many HSPs report chronic overthinking and self-doubt. Essentially, sensitive people scrutinize their own behavior more than others do, because their brains are wired to go deep — and one of the hallmark characteristics of sensitivity is depth of processing.
It simply means that we tend to experience stimulation more intensely than others do, whether that stimulation is positive or negative. This applies to the guilt we experience in life — HSPs are human and make mistakes just like everyone else. When we do, the guilt can feel more intense to us, and it also makes us very susceptible to misplaced guilt. Not only does it feel terrible to hold onto guilt from the past, but if it becomes a habit, it can create some real negative repercussions in our lives long-term.
The Difference Between Shame and Guilt
Shame also comes into the picture when we’re talking about guilt. While shame and guilt are two separate emotions, according to Dr. Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person, the highly sensitive brain can conflate the two, making the emotional experience more intense.
Guilt is the emotion that presents itself when we’ve done something wrong — or perceive our actions to be wrong. But shame is deeper than that. It’s the sense that your whole self is wrong. According to Dr. Aron, sometimes an event that would only evoke guilt in most people ends up evoking shame in a highly sensitive person, who might be more likely to interpret their wrongdoing as proof of their own worthlessness.
On a related note, in their book titled Shame And Guilt, June Price Tangney and Ronda L. Dearing identified a connection between being prone to shame and dealing with psychological conditions, like depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and social anxiety disorder. All three of these conditions can significantly affect a person’s quality of life — and even if we never develop them, prolonged shame can cause us to develop a very negative view of ourselves. This can then play out negatively in so many different areas of our lives.
So, how can those of us who are highly sensitive people manage our feelings of guilt in such a way that we’re able to take accountability for our actions — without damaging our self-worth? Because, no matter how hard you try to do the right thing at every turn, it’s simply impossible to avoid making mistakes from time to time. That’s why it’s important to know how to react to guilt in a healthy way when it inevitably happens — especially since we have a tendency to feel our emotions on a really deep level.
As long as it doesn’t get out of control, feeling guilt isn’t all bad. In fact, if you feel guilty sometimes, it means that you care about the way your actions affect the people around you. It’s a sign of your empathy and your ability to maintain close, loving, healthy relationships. However, to make sure your guilt doesn’t unnecessarily morph into its less constructive cousin, shame, you might find it helpful to follow the steps below.
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5 Ways to Overcome Guilt as an HSP
1. Name your guilt — this way, you can begin to perceive your emotions more objectively.
First, name your guilt: Figure out what action caused you to feel guilty and why. Naming our emotions, and understanding their origins, is beneficial. It allows us the chance to take a step back and figure out how we’re going to handle them — instead of allowing them to get out of control and manifest in harmful ways.
Experts suggest these three strategies for naming and understanding your emotions (in this case, any guilt you may be harboring). First, expand your emotional vocabulary (Are you disappointed? Afraid? How are you feeling?). Next, learn to rank the intensity of the emotions you’re feeling on a scale of 1-10. And, finally, write them down: “I now realize…” or “I understand…” This way, you can begin to perceive your emotions more objectively and make the best decisions for you.
2. Apologize when necessary — it helps to validate the other person’s feelings.
A sincere apology benefits the person you’ve wronged — and yourself — as well as the relationship you share. The most effective apologies involve the following components. Start by specifically stating how you’ve caused harm. When you are able to acknowledge everything you’ve done wrong, you show that you’ve taken the necessary time and effort to think about what you’ve done. You also validate the other person’s feelings by identifying exactly how you may have hurt them.
When I was a lot younger, I often justified my wrong behavior in an effort to protect myself from shame and guilt. However, I’ve learned that apologizing isn’t about making myself feel better. It’s about taking responsibility for — and maintaining healthy relationships with — the people around me, which does help me feel better in the end.
That being said, a sincere, effective apology does not involve making excuses for yourself. By expressing your remorse, keeping the lines of communication open between you and the person you’ve wronged, and adjusting your behavior, you are changing your sensitivity in a constructive way. It can be tempting to go into defense mode when you’re suffering with intense feelings of guilt, but this is a waste of our HSP superpowers.
3. Learn from your mistakes — and think of ways you can change your behavior for the better.
Apologies that aren’t followed by a change are pretty pointless. You’ve probably dealt with one of those, and it probably hurts you to see how little effort is put in even when change is promised. When I feel guilty about something, I find it helpful for both me (and the person I’ve wronged) to think of several specific ways I plan to change my behavior for the better.
Conscientiousness can be an HSP trait, meaning that you likely care about aligning your actions with what’s right. This can be helpful when you’re trying to learn from your mistakes.
4. Practice self-compassion through journaling.
When you’re feeling intense guilt, especially guilt that morphs into shame, it can be tempting to ruminate on what you’ve done and punish yourself. As HSPs, we’re known for our empathy and compassion. But, unfortunately, we don’t always extend that understanding to ourselves. When I find myself being extra harsh on myself, I think of whether I’d subject a beloved friend to the same scrutiny. Usually, the answer is no.
Self-compassion can be shown in a variety of ways. Accepting your own imperfection is a great place to start. Personally, journaling is my favorite tool for self-compassion and forgiveness. Not only are there several types of journaling for highly sensitive people, but it’s also portable: you can do it in a notebook or on the go, on your phone.
5. Recognize the “guilt trip” — it’s often a toxic way for others to get their needs met (but does not have your best interests at heart).
Though none of us are perfect, and, many times, the guilt we feel is fully warranted, there are times where guilt is used as a manipulation tactic. To protect ourselves from the guilt trip, it’s important to be able to recognize when it’s happening.
The guilt trip is typically used to control our actions. For example, your parents might use the fact that you haven’t visited them in a while to create guilty feelings in you. They probably don’t mean to cause you harm, but they’re hoping your guilt moves you to visit them more often. No matter how innocent the intent is, guilt is a toxic way for a person to get their needs met. Especially if you’re sensitive to guilt and other negative emotions, you have the right to protect yourself from guilt trips. (Once again, boundaries come into play, too.)
It’s easy to tell if someone is trying to use guilt to manipulate you. Simply pay attention to the way you feel when you’re doing something that’s been asked of you. Do you feel light and giving when you’re doing a favor — or resentful? When someone is guilt-tripping you, it makes you feel stuck. Your actions feel forced and inauthentic, which is especially painful for us HSPs. How can you avoid falling into this trap?
The most helpful protection is to learn to speak your truth, which can be challenging for sensitive types. It’s also important to be able to evaluate whether you’ve done something wrong, and be able to trust that evaluation. If you know for certain that you haven’t done anything wrong, don’t apologize. Instead, set clear boundaries with people who insist on using guilt to manipulate you.
Remember: Guilt is a normal emotion, but it shouldn’t control your life. No matter what the answer to the opening question is, even if you’re deeply affected by your feelings of guilt, you can overcome them. Whether you simply need to develop more positive self-talk or you need to seek professional help, you can use your HSP strengths to learn from your mistakes — and free yourself from guilt once and for all (or at least as much as possible).
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You might like:
- How to Overcome Shame and Self-Doubt as a Highly Sensitive Person
- The Difference Between the Highly Sensitive Brain and the ‘Typical’ Brain
- 13 Problems Only Highly Sensitive People Will Understand
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