Guilt can be a very useful emotion. It is an internal mechanism for controlling our own behaviour. When we do, think or feel something that is inconsistent with our values, feelings of guilt can motivate us to change in some way. For example, you may have a heated argument with a loved one, and say some unkind words which you later regret. After you have cooled down, you may realise that your relationship with that person is more important than what you were arguing about.
The feelings of guilt motivate you to “kiss and make up”, thus restoring the relationship and relieving your guilt. Guilt, therefore, is supposed to be temporary, a short-term emotion. When thoughts and feelings of guilt remain for extended periods of time, they can become very destructive. Some people use guilt as a means of controlling others. For example, spouse abusers may tell their victims that “it was your fault – you made me angry”, to try and divert the blame from themselves and to discourage their victims from leaving. The victims then may feel that they must stay and try to compensate for the ‘bad things they have done’. Guilt can be especially destructive after a traumatic experience, and may cause long-term stress and anxiety.
If you have been involved in or witnessed a traumatic event which caused intense fear, horror or helplessness, you may subsequently feel guilty about what you did or didn’t do, which could have changed the outcome of the event. For example, a child runs out onto the road and is struck by a car. The parent may constantly think of all the things that should have been done to prevent the accident. Such thinking is likely to induce severe anxiety, intrusive memories or flashbacks and avoidance of reminders of the trauma. Such an individual may not be able to even walk down a street again without having a major anxiety attack. Remember that guilt is designed to initiate change. However, holding on to feelings of guilt about a traumatic event cannot change what happened.
What needs to change then, is how you feel. The staff from The Anna Centre are warm and caring people. As you discuss your thoughts and feelings of guilt with them, they will be able to help you understand them from a perspective which will assist you to move on with your life.