The Poison in Our System

Guilt is an extremely common feeling of emotional distress caused by the belief that we’ve done something wrong or caused harm to another person. We all fail to live up to our own standards from time to time and even the best of us can act in ways that offend, insult, or hurt someone, inadvertently or otherwise. How common are guilty feelings? Studies estimate that people experience roughly two hours a day of mild guilt, five hours a week of moderate guilt, and three and a half hours a month of severe guilt. In some cases guilty feelings persist for years and even for decades.

The reason we don’t walk around feeling incapacitated by guilty feelings is that we usually experience them for only short durations. Indeed, guilt’s primary function is to signal to us we’ve done or are about to do something that violates our personal standards (such as when we cheat on our diets, buy something that wasn’t in our budget, or play video games instead of doing work) or that causes direct or indirect harm to another person. We respond to this signal by reevaluating our plan of action or apologizing to those we’ve harmed and mending the situation as best we can, and our guilt typically dissipates rather quickly thereafter.

Unpleasant as it is, guilt serves a crucial function in maintaining our individual standards of behavior and in protecting our personal, familial, and community relationships. When our spouse tears up in the middle of a heated argument, guilt makes us soften and reach out. When we’re extremely busy and stressed at work and realize we forgot our mother’s birthday, guilt swoops in to nag at us until we drop what we’re doing and shoot her a highly apologetic e-mail or phone call. And when our friend discovers we revealed something he or she told us in confidence, guilt motivates us to offer a heartfelt apology, a promise of future discretion, and maybe even a nice dinner as compensation.

Guilt does so much to protect our most cherished relationships it practically deserves its own superhero costume and cape. But before we break out the spandex, we should consider that not everything guilt does is psychologically beneficial. In the above examples, the harm we caused the other person was mild and our efforts to apologize or atone for our errors were successful. Therefore our guilty feelings ceased immediately or at least decreased significantly as a result. Similarly, when we fail to live up to our own standards, compensating for our wrongdoing and correcting our behavior is usually sufficient to eliminate our guilt substantially if not entirely.

But there are times when our guilty feelings outstay their welcome and become literal squatters in our minds. While guilt can be heroic in small doses, in larger ones, it becomes a psychological villain, poisoning both our peace of mind and our most cherished relationships. And once the toxins of unhealthy guilt are circulating in our systems, extracting the venom is no easy task.

Unhealthy Guilt and Relationships

Although we feel guilty when we violate our personal standards, such guilt rarely lingers. When we cheat on our diet, when we spend too much money, or when we neglect our duties in some way, we might make efforts to compensate for our actions, but we are rarely traumatized by them. No one wakes up screaming in the middle of the night consumed with guilt about the chocolate cheesecake they wolfed down last Christmas. When emotional distress about violating our personal standards does linger, it usually engenders feelings of regret rather than guilt.

Rather, unhealthy guilt occurs primarily in situations involving our relationships—when there are implications for the welfare of others. Unhealthy relational guilt typically manifests in three primary forms, all of which inflict similar psychological wounds: unresolved guilt, which is the most common and often the most damaging, survivor guilt, and separation guilt (or the closely related disloyalty guilt).

Although there are innumerable offenses that can elicit relational guilt, one of the main reasons our guilt might remain unresolved is that we’re much less skilled at rendering effective apologies than we tend to realize. Another is that even when our apologies are on point, the harm we caused the other person might simply be too great for that person to forgive us for or the person might want to forgive us but simply feels unable to do so (often a sign our apology was ineffective after all). In some situations circumstances might prevent us from being able to communicate an apology to the person at all. In each of these scenarios, our guilt remains unresolved and unremitting and can quickly become toxic.

Some forms of guilt occur without clear wrongdoing on our part. Survivors of wars, accidents, illnesses, or other tragedies often find it impossible to engage in their lives fully because doing so evokes images or memories of those who perished. They might be consumed by questions about why they survived while others did not. Or they might feel responsible in some way even though there was nothing they could have done to prevent the events from occurring. Many of those with severe cases of survivor guilt also suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As such, their survivor guilt is merely a symptom of a more complex psychological disorder and the treatments in this chapter would not be appropriate for them. When survivor guilt is related to wars, accidents, and other traumatic events, it is best to consult a mental health professional who is specifically trained in treating PTSD.

Survivor guilt is often made worse by circumstance. We might have argued with a sibling just before he was killed in a driving accident, forgotten to call back a friend just before she committed suicide, or insulted a colleague moments before he was fired. One of the most unfortunate examples of how circumstances can induce survivor guilt involves Waylon Jennings, who was a guitarist for Buddy Holly. Jennings had a seat on Holly’s plane the day it crashed, killing all aboard, but he gave up his seat to J.P. Richardson (“the Big Bopper”) and took the bus because Richardson was sick. If that wasn’t enough to induce survivor guilt, the last exchange Jennings had with Holly was when Holly teased Jennings for having to take the bus by saying, “Well, I hope your ol’ bus freezes up!” Jennings retorted, “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes!” Jennings later became a star in his own right, but he was forever haunted by incredible survivor guilt both by Richardson’s death and even more so because of his parting words to Buddy Holly.

Fortunately, many of the situations that cause survivor guilt are far less dramatic or tragic than Jennings’s. When we find ourselves more fortunate than others, either because we’re doing exceptionally well or because they are faring unusually poorly by comparison, our empathy and conscience can combine to elicit an exaggerated sense of guilt. As a result we might experience psychological disruptions in our lives despite no wrongdoing on our part. For example, we might find it difficult to enjoy a promotion because our friend and colleague had competed for the same position. We might feel unable to celebrate our engagement to the person of our dreams because our older sibling is still single and unhappy. Or we might have trouble celebrating getting into our first choice of colleges because our best friend did not.

What makes survivor guilt especially hard to purge is that there are no actions for which we must atone, no relationship ruptures to mend, and no outstanding apologies to be rendered. As such, our guilt serves no relational purpose and its warning signals constitute nothing more than a deafening false alarm that poisons our quality of life.

Separation guilt involves feeling guilty about moving forward and pursuing our own life when doing so involves leaving others behind. We might find it impossible to enjoy a night out with our spouse because we feel guilty about leaving our children with a babysitter, even one with whom they are familiar and comfortable. We might feel guilty about living far from our aging parents, even when they are well cared for. Or we might feel guilty about taking a job or studying overseas when we know how much our families will miss us.

Disloyalty guilt arises when we feel such binding ties of loyalty to close family members or friends that pursuing our own goals or making choices that deviate from their norms and expectations makes us feel bad. We worry that our families will perceive our choices as hurtful condemnations of their own values and as betrayals of family loyalty. Such guilt is especially common around themes of religious practices and sexual orientation. One mother I worked with turned to her lesbian daughter who had just come out (and had agreed to join her for the session) and cried, “How could you do this to me?!” Her daughter responded by saying, “I’m not doing anything to you! I just want to be happy!” and promptly burst into tears while mouthing to her mother, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Family members often feel betrayed in such situations and, unfortunately, they often convey their feelings to us in no uncertain terms. Of course, many adult children feel just as betrayed by their parents’ lack of support and empathy, but guilt usually falls far more heavily on their shoulders than it does on those of their parents or other family and community members.

While the consequences to our relationships should obviously be addressed in such situations, what makes our guilt maladaptive is that it arises in response to an otherwise healthy desire to express our autonomy, to live our own lives, to make our own choices and tend to our own emotional and psychological needs.

Regardless of whether our unhealthy guilt results from wrongdoing on our part or not, the more excessive it is or the longer it lingers, the more toxic its effects become and the greater the wounds it can inflict on our mental health.

The Psychological Wounds Guilt Inflicts

Excessive unhealthy guilt causes two types of psychological wounds, each of which can be poisonous to our quality of life. The first involves the impact guilt has on our individual functioning and happiness. In addition to creating paralyzing emotional distress, guilt seriously hampers our ability to focus adequate attention on our own needs and obligations, and it often causes us to resort to blatant self-punishment. The second is that it wreaks havoc on our relationships. The effects of excessive or unresolved guilt impair our communication with the person we’ve harmed and limit our ability to relate to him or her in an authentic manner; in addition, its toxic effects often ripple outward and create tensions and allegiances that ensnare entire families, social circles, and even communities.

The reason it is urgent to treat unresolved or excessive guilt is that such feelings often intensify and devolve into remorse and shame. Once that happens, we begin to condemn not just our actions but our entire selves, leading to self-loathing, low self-esteem, and depression. In order to treat these two wounds successfully we will need a clear understanding of the impact they have on our lives and the damage they inflict on our relationships. Let’s examine them in greater detail.

1. Self-Condemnation: How Guilt Plays Whac-A-Mole with Our Joy and Happiness

Guilty feelings come in a range of severities. On the lighter side, our guilt can manifest as an annoying pest that constantly nags at us and tugs at our shirtsleeves. It can distract us as we labor to attend to our obligations and slow us down as we go about the daily business of our lives. In its more severe form guilt can consume us, paralyze us, and become the central organizing theme of our very existence.

Yoshi, a college student, was only months away from graduating when he came to see me for psychotherapy during his spring break. His parents, both physicians, had immigrated to the United States from Japan in their early thirties, then struggled to find jobs as clinicians and took research positions instead. “My father says the happiest day of his life was when I was accepted into an Ivy League school with one of the best premed programs in the country,” Yoshi explained. “They expected me to go straight to Harvard Medical School and eventually open a successful medical practice, so I could fulfill the dream they were denied.”

The pressure his parents’ expectations were putting on Yoshi was enormous, but as he continued his story I realized he was far beyond stressed—he looked absolutely haunted.

“I hated premed from the first class I took,” he continued. “I kept at it for the entire first year and I did well, but I was miserable. Premed wasn’t for me. Medical school isn’t for me. So I switched majors. Only I didn’t know how to tell them without breaking their hearts. They’ve sacrificed so much for me, for my education, I just couldn’t ... I’ve been lying to them ever since. But I graduate in a few months and then ... they’ll know!” Yoshi covered his face with his hands. “I feel so guilty I could throw up. I keep imagining their faces when they find out.” Yoshi began sobbing. He was unable to speak for several minutes. “They’ve worked so hard to pay for my schooling. I could have gone to a state school and saved them so much money. They think I’ll be hearing from Harvard any day now. They’re going to be crushed, just crushed!” Yoshi broke into a fresh round of sobs. “I don’t know what to do! I can’t concentrate, I can’t focus, I can’t study ... it’s all I can think about!”

After managing his guilt for three years, Yoshi could no longer keep it at bay. His guilty feelings now consumed him, screamed at him, nagged at him, and made it impossible for him to ignore their presence any longer. They hampered his ability to concentrate, to focus, to think clearly, and to move forward in his studies.

Guilt makes many of us experience mental and intellectual disruptions that are so significant we might struggle to meet our basic obligations and to function at work or in school. Until we take steps to address the cause of our guilt or minimize its impact, we will continue to remain at its mercy.

Unfortunately, unhealthy guilt doesn’t only make us feel bad, it prevents us from feeling good as well. In one study involving regular college students (i.e., not ones preselected for guilt issues), scientists flashed words associated with guilt, such as “blameworthy,” “culpable,” and “guilt-ridden,” on a screen at high speed such that the participants did not perceive the words consciously but were impacted by them nonetheless—a process called “priming.” A second group of people was primed with words associated with sadness, and a third (control) group was primed with neutral words. Participants were then asked to indicate how they might spend a fifty-dollar coupon. While subjects in the neutral and sadness groups allocated most of their funds to things such as music and movies, subjects who were primed with guilt-related words chose far less indulgent items such as school supplies.

This experiment and others like it serve as testaments to guilt’s significant party-pooping powers, as even subliminal exposure to guilt-related words was sufficient to function as a killjoy for people who weren’t even feeling guilty at the time. Certainly when we are in the throes of unrelenting or excessive guilt it is extremely difficult for us to enjoy our lives in any substantial way. Things that used to bring us pleasure, joy, or excitement lose their appeal, not because we no longer enjoy them, but because we no longer permit ourselves to do so.

This is especially problematic for people who suffer from various forms of survivor guilt. For example, parents whose children are victims of accidents or chronic illness, children (and even grandchildren) of Holocaust survivors, survivors of other atrocities, and spouses who lose their partners often feel guilty at the very thought of having fun or indulging themselves in any way. Such extended and severe guilt serves no productive purpose other than to unnecessarily diminish our own quality of life.

A Fight Club of One

Another toxic effect of excessive guilt is that we might try to relieve our emotional distress by punishing ourselves for our wrongdoings (consciously or unconsciously) with self-sabotaging or self-destructive behavior. Some of us even resort to punishing ourselves physically. Self-flagellation has a long and particularly stomach-turning history as a form of atonement and was especially popular during outbreaks of bubonic plague in thirteenth-and fourteenth-century Europe. People believed that publically whipping themselves with irons or flaying their own flesh would cleanse them from sins and ward off the Black Death. As civilization advanced, so have our methods of self-punishment, as evidenced by the dearth of people who whip themselves into a bloody mess in public and the abundance of folks who bang their heads against a wall in private.

Head bangers aside, far more of us resort to self-punishment than we might realize. In one study, people who were made to feel guilty by depriving a fellow subject of lottery tickets were willing to give themselves highly uncomfortable electrical shocks, especially when they found themselves in the presence of their “victim.” In other studies, subjects who were made to feel guilty were willing to keep their hands submerged in freezing water for painful periods of time (and much longer ones than nonguilty subjects). What makes such findings remarkable is that the participants weren’t warding off the plague—they just felt bad about a fellow student missing out on a few lottery tickets!

Seeking self-punishment when we feel responsible for harming someone whom we are unable to compensate for our actions is known as the Dobby effect (so named after the self-punishing house-elf in the Harry Potter series). The reason we nonmagical creatures resort to such measures, and the reason we might even do so publicly, is that such actions represent a clear signal of remorse. By making others aware of our emotional distress, we redistribute the emotional (or physical) pain our “victims” felt, even the score with them, and hopefully restore our standing in our social circle, family, or community.

2. Blocked Relationships: How Guilt Poisons Arteries of Healthy Communication

Significant guilt poisons the arteries of authentic communication and connection between us and those we’ve harmed (or, in the case of guilt trips, those who perceive themselves to have been harmed by us whether they were or not). Even if we don’t realize it, unresolved guilt impacts our behavior around the other person, and it usually affects how that person behaves around us as well. In many cases, it also embroils others in our social or family circles, such that the natural flow of authentic communication between all the affected people quickly becomes poisoned and our relationships become extremely strained. The ongoing toxicity of our unresolved guilt in such situations can damage our relationships even more substantially than our original offense did.

We often experience guilt in waves and when it comes to our relationships, the waves are at their highest when we interact with the offended person. In such moments, our guilt can spike so dramatically that it feels like being hit in the face in dodgeball. Understandably, our natural inclination is often to duck these painful encounters whenever we can. In order to minimize any chances of injuring the person further, we avoid any mention of the guilt-inducing incident itself, when interacting with that person and with other family members. We steer clear of any related topics that might segue into the incident, a list that tends to grow as time goes on. We might also avoid people or places that remind us of our wrongdoing, and eventually we begin making efforts to avoid the person altogether.

While such strategies represent ineffective solutions at best, they are all but impossible when the person we’ve harmed is our spouse. Blake, a stay-at-home dad, and Judy, a pharmaceuticals sales representative, initially came to couples therapy to deal with parenting issues. They had three children, two of whom were diagnosed with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder and all three of whom failed to respond to any efforts the parents made to set limits. However, their parenting differences were swiftly pushed aside when Blake discovered a text message indicating Judy might have had an affair with a coworker the previous year. He confronted her about it in our next session. Judy was stunned by Blake’s ambush but she confessed to the affair right away. “It was a one-time thing and I’ve regretted it ever since,” she said. “We had a drink after work and it just happened. But it didn’t mean anything! It was just a stupid mistake, a terribly stupid mistake.”

Blake, who had hoped Judy would be able to offer a compelling explanation for the text message, was absolutely shattered. “You slept with another man,” he mumbled, shaking his head in disbelief. “You slept with another man....”

Judy’s face was a mask of guilt and anguish. “I’m sorry, Blake! I truly am! But I promise you it meant nothing. It was a mistake, that’s all. You have to believe me!”

Judy was incredibly relieved when Blake informed her that he’d decided to stay in the marriage. However, that did not mean he forgave her. In fact, Blake continued to feel so wounded he struggled to think of anything else. Every time Judy looked at him, she saw the terrible hurt in his eyes and she felt incredibly guilty because of it. As the weeks went by, they began to fall back into their normal patterns and routines, but Blake’s pain lingered on and so did Judy’s guilt. Judy’s job in sales required her to be energetic and positive and she was able to adopt that mind-set when she was at work. But at home she felt oppressed by her guilt. She began working longer hours (making sure to call Blake every thirty minutes to reassure him she was legitimately in her office). She found excuses to avoid family engagements, both with his and with her own family, and she became less involved in the kids’ extracurricular activities.

I decided to meet with Judy privately to discuss her increasing disengagement. “It’s not just your guilt that you’re avoiding,” I pointed out, “it’s your entire marriage.” Judy nodded silently. But her guilt had become so overwhelming she simply wasn’t sure whether she could tolerate it much longer. She was desperate to receive forgiveness from Blake and he in turn was desperate to forgive her and move on—but he simply couldn’t. The cycle of hurt, guilt, and avoidance that played out between them devastated their ability to communicate authentically with one another and presented an even greater threat to their marriage than her affair had. When we play dodgeball with our guilt, we rarely win.

Tripping on Guilt Trips

Guilt trips almost always take place in close relationships and their most common theme is one of interpersonal neglect. “I could be lying here dead and you’d never know it because you never call,” “If you get that tattoo it’ll break your mother’s heart!” and “Your father’s been a wreck since your argument with him last week!” are common yet benign examples of everyday guilt trips that are the bread and butter of many family communications. The main reason we seek to induce guilt in others is to influence their decisions and behavior. But guilt trips have a boomerang effect we rarely consider in that, along with guilt, they also induce resentment.

In one survey, 33 percent of people indicated they felt resentful toward those who make them feel guilty while only 2 percent of guilt inducers mentioned resentment as a potential consequence of their guilt-inducing efforts. Indeed, few guilt trippers are aware of the self-defeating consequences of their actions. When we are the recipients of guilt trips we might respond to a person’s charges of neglect by engaging with them, but the resentment we typically feel by doing so is likely to motivate us to avoid them even more going forward. Mild as the poisonous effects of most guilt trips are, over the long term, their toxicity can build and cause our interactions and communication to become superficial and perfunctory, and the quality of our relationships to diminish.

How Guilt Poisons Entire Families

When our transgression is significant or when the person we harmed remains unforgiving, it doesn’t take much for the poisonous effects of our guilt and the condemnation of the person we hurt to spread to other members of our family or social circle. All it takes is for one person to take sides and invoke unspoken expectations of loyalty in doing so, and a divide is quickly established. Other family members then quickly line up on either side of the rift, poisoning arteries of healthy communication even further and affecting everyone to one degree or another. Many a multigenerational family feud was birthed in just this way.

The most fertile grounds upon which these toxic family dynamics play out are family events and religious holidays. Large gatherings create perfect stages upon which to revive a family’s “greatest hits” of past wrongdoings. Of course, aside from inducing powerful guilt in those who committed the transgressions it creates tensions and divisiveness that can mar even the best-planned and most festive events.

Antonia, a twenty-year-old college student, was the third oldest of twelve siblings, ten of whom were girls. By Antonia’s own admission, she, of all the siblings, had the most tumultuous relationship with their mother. “I’m from an Italian family,” she explained in our first session. “Very Italian, you know? I always give my mother respect but I argue with her too. Anyway, things are really bad between us now and I have to do something.” I nodded sympathetically, encouraging Antonia to continue. “I know this sounds terrible and everything,” she said, “but the reason everyone is so upset is ... I mean, what happened was I ... ran her over with the car.”

My eyebrows shot up so hard I thought my forehead would “ding.”

“I mean her foot!” Antonia hastily clarified. “I ran over her foot with the car! And it was a mistake. A mistake!”

Antonia had been visiting her parents when she and her mother had one of their “scream-fests.” Antonia decided to leave. She was about to pull out of the driveway when her mother ran out because, in Antonia’s words, she “still had more scream left in her.” Apparently Antonia’s mother proceeded to deplete her reserves of “scream” by yelling at Antonia for disrespecting her and walking away in the middle of an argument. It seems her mother delivered her tirade so loudly and with such profanity, neighbors came outside to watch. “I’ve never seen her so furious,” Antonia recalled. “There was spit all over the car window. I mean saliva!”

   Antonia, no slouch in the yelling department herself, yelled at her mother to move away from the car. “My mom stood back but she looked scary mad. It really shook me up. She made me so crazy, I forgot to straighten the wheel and didn’t realize it was turned.” Antonia swallowed hard. “I pressed on the gas and before I could hit the brake, I drove right over her foot.” Her lower lip began to tremble. “I thought I would die. Die! I jumped out and saw my mother clutching her left foot and screaming. I almost had a heart attack when I realized I must have driven over it. She had bunion surgery on that same foot just last year! I was, like, ‘Ma, I’m sorry! I didn’t realize the wheel was turned! I’m sorry!’ But she didn’t even look at me. She just moaned in pain.”

Antonia wanted to drive her mother straight to the emergency room, but her mother refused and insisted Antonia’s older sister drive her instead. “I waited for them at home all night,” Antonia continued. “I felt so guilty I could vomit. Vomit! Then my sister Maria comes up to me and tells me my mother says I ran over her on purpose! Can you believe that? How could she think that?!”

By the time Antonia’s mother got home, her sisters had already divided into camps: those who believed she had run over her mother’s foot on purpose and those who were horrified by the mere suggestion. Unfortunately, her mother’s foot took months to heal, during which members of the extended family were slowly recruited to one side or the other. All the while, Antonia continued to visit her parents and communicate with her mother, albeit somewhat minimally, such that on the surface things appeared normal. But below the surface, the unspoken accusations and resentments and Antonia’s guilty feelings were snowballing. By the time the family gathered for Thanksgiving the tension was so thick, it ruined the holiday for everyone. Antonia decided to seek my advice before their Christmas was ruined as well.

Similar tensions and tests of loyalty are common in workplaces, among friends, and in other social circles such as recreational sport teams. When our guilt is substantial and unresolved, the poison that impairs healthy communication and creates stress between ourselves and another person can easily expand and become toxic for the entire group.

How to Treat the Psychological Wounds Guilt Inflicts

Guilt usually serves an important function by alerting us to when we might have harmed another person or when any actions we’re considering might do so. Once we modify our plan of action or atone for our transgressions, either by apologizing or in some other way, our guilt subsides. Therefore, we do not need to apply emotional first aid treatments in every situation. However, if our offense is serious or if we’ve already made significant efforts to apologize to the person we harmed or to atone for our actions in other ways and our guilt remains excessive, or if we suffer from substantial survivor guilt, or separation and disloyalty guilt, emotional first aid is indeed necessary. Let’s open our medical cabinet and review our treatment options.

General Treatment Guidelines

The most effective way to treat unresolved guilt is to eliminate it at the source by repairing our relationship with the person we’ve harmed. Mending the rupture and garnering the person’s authentic forgiveness will cause our guilt to diminish significantly, and most likely dissolve completely, soon thereafter. Treatment A (rendering effective apologies) focuses on how to repair damaged relationships by crafting psychologically effective apologies that can detoxify any ill will the other person still harbors and promote relationship repair.

Treatment B (self-forgiveness) focuses on situations in which the circumstances prevent a direct apology to be issued or ones in which it is impossible to repair the relationship for other reasons, and provides other ways to alleviate guilt, and reduce self-condemnation and self-punishment. Treatment B is not as effective as Treatment A in removing the venom that is at the root of excessive guilt but it does provide a form of “psychological antitoxin” that can deliver much-needed emotional relief. Treatment C (reengaging in life) is focused on survivor and separation and disloyalty guilt (in which there are no relationship ruptures to mend). At the end of the chapter I discuss guidelines for when one should consult a mental health professional.

Treatment A: Learn the Recipe for an Effective Apology

In theory, the solution to toxic relational guilt is simple—you render an authentic apology to the person you’ve harmed and, assuming your sincerity shines through and your transgression was not too monumental, all will be forgiven, especially with time. However, research demonstrates that in practice, this simple transaction of apology and forgiveness goes awry far more often than we might expect, regardless of the area of our lives in which it occurs. Further complicating matters, both psychologically and communication-wise, when our apologies are perceived as insincere they can actually backfire and make a situation worse, spreading even more poison into an already toxic interpersonal dynamic.

The reason this happens so often is that crafting apologies that are effective enough to garner authentic forgiveness is far more complicated than we realize. In fact, until recently, it was far more complicated than most psychologists realized as well.

How is it possible that something as basic as an apology befuddles so many of us? After all, most of us are taught to say “I’m sorry” as soon as we can talk. Surely as adults we should be at least somewhat proficient at offering effective apologies. Alas, we’re not. Although we’re taught when to say “I’m sorry,” we’re never really taught how to say it, or at least how to voice it effectively. This exact issue eluded psychologists for many years. Hundreds of studies have investigated apologies and forgiveness but the vast majority of them have examined only if and when an apology was rendered, not how it was articulated nor what distinguished a successful apology from an unsuccessful one. Fortunately, relationship experts and researchers have finally begun to investigate the specific ingredients that make apologies effective and more likely to elicit authentic forgiveness from the offended party.

The Recipe for Communicating Effective Apologies

Most of us conceive of apologies as including three basic ingredients: (1) a statement of regret for what happened; (2) a clear “I’m sorry” statement; and (3) a request for forgiveness—all of which must be delivered with sincerity (e.g., “Wow, I completely forgot about our date night! I feel really bad about it and hope you can forgive me!” as opposed to “Oops! Was that tonight?”). Although each of these ingredients might seem obvious, it is remarkable how often we end up omitting one of them. When I point out such omissions to my patients, they often respond as if I’m being petty by calling them on a mere “technicality.” “Aw, come on!” they often say, “I’m apologizing, aren’t I? The ‘I’m sorry’ part is implied!”

My response is usually to point out that flour is an implied ingredient when we’re baking a cake, but if we forget to put it in, what we end up with won’t look like cake and it won’t taste like cake either. The analogy is important because if we want our apologies to be effective, we have to follow a clear recipe, and the three items above are not the only ingredients we need to include. Scientists have discovered three additional components that also play a vital role in an apology’s effectiveness: validating the other person’s feelings, offering atonement, and acknowledging we violated expectations. Let’s look at these additional ingredients and then examine which of the total of six apology components were present or lacking in the apologies offered by Antonia, Judy, and Yoshi, and how their apologies fared as a result.

Validate Their Feelings

We generally find it hard to forgive people who hurt, angered, or disappointed us unless we believe they really “get” how they made us feel. But if their apology demonstrates a clear understanding of the emotional pain they caused us and if they take full responsibility for doing so, we feel substantial emotional relief and have a much easier time letting go of our resentment because we feel like our feelings have been validated.

Emotional validation is a powerful tool when used correctly, and a great toxin remover when used in apologies. Consequently, we need to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and understand the specific consequences of our actions, how the person was affected by them, and the feelings they caused. Validating the person’s emotions by conveying we “get” how he or she feels does not imply we meant for the person to feel that way. Doing so merely acknowledges the person felt wronged, regardless of our intentions.

The reason this ingredient is so often omitted from apologies is because when we’ve caused someone harm, acknowledging how upset he or she seems strikes us as a risky proposition. The idea of telling someone who’s angry, frustrated, or horribly disappointed in us that he or she indeed should feel angry, frustrated, or horribly disappointed seems akin to pouring fuel on the fire. Consequently, our instinct is to avoid addressing the individual’s emotional state entirely. Yet, counterintuitive as it might seem, when we validate someone’s feelings accurately, something quite magical happens. Rather than inciting further fury and pouring fuel on the fire, our message of emotional validation actually douses the flame.

Emotional validation is something we all seek and crave far more than we realize. One of the reasons so many of us feel compelled to discuss our feelings with others when we feel upset, angry, frustrated, disappointed, or hurt is that we hope to get things off our chest and ease our internal distress by doing so. However, in order to feel true relief, we need them to “get it,” to understand what happened to us and why we feel the way we do. We need them to validate our feelings by conveying that understanding along with a generous dollop of empathy. When we spill our guts to our friends we hope they’ll say “Wow,” “Gosh,” and “That’s terrible!” We would find it incredibly unsatisfying if their only response to our heart-wrenching tale was to shrug and say, “Bummer.”

How to Offer Authentic Emotional Validation

There are five steps to offering authentic emotional validation. The most important factor is accuracy. The more accurate we are when conveying our understanding of the wronged person’s feelings, the more relationship poison we remove by doing so.

  1. Let the other person complete his or her narrative about what happened so you have all the facts.
  2. Convey your understanding of what happened to this person from his or her perspective (whether you agree with that perspective or not and even if that perspective is obviously skewed).
  3. Convey your understanding of how the person felt as a result of what happened (from his or her perspective).
  4. Acknowledge that his or her feelings are reasonable (which, given that person’s perspective, they are).
  5. Convey empathy and remorse for the person’s emotional state.

For more detailed instructions on how to access our empathy and accurately assess how another person feels, see the sections on perspective taking and empathy in chapter 2.

Offer Compensation or Atonement

Although it might not always be relevant, necessary, or possible to do so, making offers to compensate or atone for our actions in some way can be extremely meaningful to the offended party, even if he or she turns down the offers we make. By conveying our recognition that there is an imbalance in the relationship and suggesting actions that can restore a sense of equity and fairness, we communicate a much deeper level of regret and remorse, as well as a strong motivation to repair the imbalance and make things right (e.g., “I’m so sorry I got drunk and ruined your birthday party. I know how much work you put into planning it. Perhaps I could throw a get-together in your honor to make it up to you.”)

Acknowledge You Violated Social Norms or Expectations

One huge factor that prevents us from garnering authentic forgiveness from people we’ve harmed is they don’t know whether we’ve learned our lesson. Are we changed people or are we just as likely to commit the same wrongdoing again? Therefore, we have to clearly acknowledge that our actions violated certain expectations, rules, or social norms and offer reasonable assurances that those will not be violated again in the future. Further, when possible, we should be specific and explicit about the steps we plan to take in order to make sure we avoid repeating our “offense” (e.g., “I’ve entered your birthday in my electronic calendar so I’ll get a reminder every year.”)

Effective Apologies in Action

Once I described these six components to Judy, Antonia, and Yoshi they were each able to identify numerous ways in which their initial apologies fell short. For example, Antonia’s apology covered the three basics in that she expressed ample regret for running over her mother’s foot, she made numerous “I’m sorry” statements, and she repeatedly begged her mother for forgiveness. Further, Antonia made efforts to atone for her actions (by offering to drive her mother to the hospital and offering to help out around the house), and she even expressed empathy for her mother’s physical pain. But she did not do the one thing her mother needed most—Antonia failed to acknowledge that she violated the family norm of never turning her back on her parents and walking away (or in this case, turning the wheel and driving away) and conveying disrespect to them by doing so. Until Antonia offered her mother assurances that she would avoid violating this family rule in the future, her mother would not be able to forgive her.

When Yoshi finally confessed to his parents that he would not be going to Harvard Medical School and that he had not taken premed courses since his freshman year, they were every bit as devastated as he feared they would be. “My mom gasped and burst into tears and my dad just stood there stoically, trying not to break down, saying nothing. I told them how sorry I was, that I knew how much anguish, disappointment, and heartbreak I was causing them. And still he said nothing. I told them I knew how wrong it was to deceive them and to disrespect them by lying and I begged for their forgiveness, but he didn’t utter a word. He couldn’t even look at me. Every moment of his silence was like a dagger of guilt thrusting deeper into my heart. Eventually there was nothing more I could say. He just turned, put his arm around my mom, and walked out. They haven’t spoken to me since.”

Yoshi’s apology was extremely sincere and heartfelt and it had a lot going for it in other ways as well. He was extremely sensitive to his parents’ feelings and he voiced repeated expressions of empathy. He also acknowledged the many social and family norms he violated. However, the one ingredient he omitted was that he made no offers to compensate his parents for the huge sums of money they would have saved had Yoshi been honest about his aspirations and attended a much less expensive school. Doing so would have impressed upon them how sincere he was about atoning for his transgression and doing the honorable thing. In addition, it would also have allowed them to save face with friends and other family members. They could explain that their son had a change of heart about medical school and that he planned to take full responsibility for his decision and repay the tuition they had invested in his education.

Obviously, even had he done so, the rupture in the relationship with his parents was profound and it would take time for them to reestablish their bond and mend things fully. But garnering even provisional forgiveness and feeling as though he was at least on the path of relational repair would have been sufficient for Yoshi’s guilt to begin to diminish.

Judy, who cheated on her husband, Blake, expressed a clear “I’m sorry” statement as well as a statement of remorse (“It was a one-time thing and I’ve regretted it ever since”). But she kept asking Blake to “believe” her, rather than to “forgive” her. As simplistic as it might sound, if we never ask the other person for forgiveness, we are not likely to receive it. Judy’s apology was deficient in other regards as well. Although she acknowledged her actions were wrong (“It was a stupid mistake!”), she did not explicitly address the fact that she broke their marital vows of fidelity.

When I pointed this out to her, she insisted it wasn’t necessary to acknowledge something that Blake already knew full well, as it would just upset him further. But the real reason she failed to acknowledge she’d violated their marital contract was that doing so would expose her to an emotional “dodgeball in the face”—a surge in guilt and psychological distress. While her reluctance was understandable, by not making such an admission, Judy failed to come across as taking full responsibility for her actions. Most important, Judy made various offers of atonement (for example, by agreeing to call Blake every thirty minutes when she worked late), but she failed to express sufficient empathy for what Blake was feeling and she demonstrated no insight into his emotional state. As a result, she was unable to validate Blake’s emotions in any way. For example, she said nothing to acknowledge how difficult it would be for him to trust her going forward or how challenging it would be for him to recapture his previous feelings for the marriage, even if it were possible for him to do so.

Dosage: Apply the principles in this treatment fully and thoughtfully to the person(s) you have wronged. Make sure to craft your apology carefully and give thought to the best time and place to deliver it.

Effective for: Reducing guilt and self-condemnation and repairing damaged relationships.

Treatment B: Forgive Yourself

Apologizing to the person we harmed and receiving authentic forgiveness in return can dramatically alleviate our guilt and make it unnecessary for us to continue our avoidant behavior. However, forgiveness is sometimes impossible to secure, either because circumstances do not allow it (such as when the person we harmed is unavailable to us) or because our best efforts to elicit forgiveness have already failed. In such situations our guilt continues to poison our quality of life and our self-condemnation persists.

Although it is always preferable to receive forgiveness from the person we’ve harmed, when we are unable to do so, the only way to ease our torment is to forgive ourselves. Self-forgiveness is a process, not a decision (granted, it is a process that starts with a decision). We first have to recognize that we’ve beaten ourselves up enough and that our excessive guilt is serving no productive purpose in our lives and then we have to make the emotional effort necessary to work through it.

Self-forgiveness can be emotionally challenging but the results are definitely worthwhile. Studies have demonstrated that self-forgiveness reduces feelings of guilt and can eliminate our need to avoid the person we harmed. It also increases our ability to enjoy life and decreases our tendency to self-punish or act in ways that are self-destructive. Case in point, people who forgave themselves for procrastinating when they should have been studying were found to procrastinate significantly less than procrastinators who did not explicitly forgive themselves.

The Steps for Attaining Self-Forgiveness

Self-forgiveness by no means implies our behavior was acceptable or that it should be condoned or forgotten. Rather, self-forgiveness should be the outcome of a conscious process, an effort to come to peace with our wrongdoing. The danger of self-forgiveness is that we might forgive ourselves too easily or too readily or that we might fail to implement the changes, mindfulness, and caution necessary to prevent us from repeating our transgressions. Therefore, self-forgiveness requires us first to take full responsibility for our actions and give ourselves an honest and accurate accounting of the events causing our guilt. We must be able to explicitly acknowledge both our wrongdoings and their impact on the person we harmed, both practically and emotionally.

Coming to terms with our actions and their consequences can be emotionally uncomfortable if not painful but unless we go through such self-examination any self-forgiveness we grant ourselves will not be authentic. In cases in which our wrongdoing caused significant harm (e.g., we drove under the influence and caused an accident that resulted in people dying or suffering grave bodily harm) and we are unsure of whether we can or indeed if we should find self-forgiveness, we should seek the counsel of a mental health professional.

Once we take full responsibility for our actions and their consequences, we will be ready to take the second step and work on forgiving ourselves. In order to come to peace with our actions we will need to make some form of amends or reparations for the harm we’ve caused and find ways to minimize the likelihood of committing a similar transgression in the future.


To create a clear divide between accountability and atonement the following writing exercise is presented in two parts. The first will help you accurately assess your part in the events so you can find ways to forgive yourself for your wrongdoings in part 2 of the exercise. You may complete both parts of the exercise as a single unit.

  1. Describe your actions or inactions that led to the other person feeling harmed.
  2. Go through your description and take out any qualifiers or excuses. For example, “She claimed she was insulted” should read, “She felt insulted.” Items such as “He did the same thing to me once” or “She made it into a bigger deal than it was” should be omitted entirely.
  3. Summarize the harm the other person sustained both tangibly and emotionally. For example, if you criticized a fellow employee unfairly and that person was fired as a result, you should mention aspects such as his or her economic hardship, the time and effort the person will need to invest in order to find another job, the blow to the individual’s self-esteem, and his or her feelings of embarrassment, resentment, and demoralization.
  4. Go through your above description of harm and make sure it is as realistic and as accurate as possible. It is important not to give yourself too much of a pass, but you should not beat yourself into a pulp either. Counterintuitive as it may seem, while some of us minimize the consequences of our transgressions, plenty of us exaggerate them. For example, when Antonia first told me about the incident with her mother she didn’t say, “I ran over her foot,” she said, “I know this sounds terrible ... I ran her over with the car,” which made me immediately envision Antonia mowing down her mother while white-knuckling the wheel and doing sixty. Yes, she caused her mother serious pain, emotional distress, and a frustrating healing process—but that’s still vastly different from what most of us envision when we hear someone was run over.
One way to make sure your descriptions are realistic is to imagine that an objective stranger will film the description you write as if it were a script. Would the film depict an identical rendition of the actual events? If not, make whatever corrections are necessary.
  1. Now that you have an accurate and realistic description of the events and your responsibility in them, it is fair to consider extenuating circumstances. Did you intend for events to unfold as they did? If so, why? If not, what were your original intentions? For example, Antonia never intended to run over her mother’s foot, and Yoshi’s original intent was not to wait three years before telling his parents he was not going to medical school. He just avoided the confrontation until his impending graduation prevented him from keeping up the pretense. If your intention was to harm, it is important to explain what drove you to do so and you will need to work on any character flaws in part 2 of the exercise. If your intentions were benign, what went wrong?
  2. What extenuating circumstances, if any, contributed to your actions or to their consequences? For example, Judy had met her colleague for drinks during a particularly stressful period at work, and at a time she and Blake were struggling with their three children. She proceeded to have too much to drink and thus was more receptive than she might have otherwise been to her colleague’s advances. The idea is not to excuse your actions, but to understand the context in which they occurred so you can ultimately find ways to forgive yourself for them.

Now that you have a fair formulation of your actions, their consequences, and their causes, you can focus on self-forgiveness. When you cannot make amends to the person you’ve harmed, the best way to purge excessive guilt is to “even the score,” first by making sure you don’t repeat your transgression and then by atoning for your actions in some way. Studies have found that both atonement and reparations are effective mechanisms for purging excessive guilt, as long as you feel as though the actions you take represent a fair way to “balance the scales.”

  1. What changes do you need to make in your thinking, your habits, your behavior, or your lifestyle that would minimize the likelihood of you repeating the transgression in the future? For example, a parent who feels guilty for disappointing his or her child by missing a basketball game or school concert for the fifth time might decide to reevaluate his or her work priorities and make changes that allow for fuller participation in the children’s lives (i.e., switching jobs, taking a different role, or just rearranging their work schedule).
  2. Once we’ve minimized the likelihood of committing the same transgression in the future, we need to purge our remaining guilt by atoning for our actions or making meaningful reparations. One way to do this is to strike a deal with ourselves and identify significant tasks, contributions, or commitments that would make our self-forgiveness feel well earned. For example, one fifteen-year-old girl I worked with who felt guilty about repeatedly stealing money from her parents’ wallets decided to make reparations when she discovered they had been struggling financially. She was convinced that simply admitting to the theft would shatter her parents’ image of her as a “good girl” and cause them significant emotional distress during an already difficult time. Since they never realized she had stolen any money to begin with, her solution was to increase her babysitting shifts and sneak the cash back into her mother’s wallet as she earned it. Keep in mind that most teens who steal money from their parents’ wallets feel no guilt whatsoever, let alone put themselves on a work detail reparations program.
As another example, a young man I worked with was driving through a “bad neighborhood” late at night when he scratched and dented two parked cars while making a tight turn. He panicked and fled the scene without leaving a note. He felt extremely guilty about his wrongdoing later on, especially when he realized it was likely the owners of the two vehicles might not be able to afford to repair the damage he had caused. He decided to atone for his actions by donating money (an amount significantly larger than what he estimated would have been the cost of the repairs) to a community center in the area, as well as to a local youth program.
What atonement or reparations could you make so that, once completed, your efforts would feel substantial enough to earn self-forgiveness?
  1. Create a short ritual to mark the completion of your atonement. For example, once the teenage girl who’d stolen money from her parents snuck the last ten-dollar bill into her mother’s wallet, she planned to surprise her parents by making dinner so she could enjoy her first guilt-free evening with them. You might remove a photograph of the person you harmed from an album and return it only once your task is complete and then literally close the book on your guilt. Or if you decide to donate time or money to a charity, find a way to note the completion of the task in some way, so as to signal to yourself that your penance is now complete.
Dosage: Administer this treatment fully if you are unable to administer Treatment A for whatever reason or if you’ve administered Treatment A but were not successful in eliciting authentic forgiveness.

Effective for: Reducing guilt and self-condemnation.

Treatment C: Reengage in Life

Treating survivor or separation or disloyalty guilt is challenging because there is nothing for which we need to take responsibility or atone. Ironic as it may sound, it is easier to induce self-forgiveness when we’ve done something wrong than it is when our hands are clean and there is nothing for which we actually need to forgive ourselves. Nonetheless, while we cannot undo the suffering and loss of others, we can take steps to end our own.

The best way to move past our guilt when we didn’t do anything wrong is to remind ourselves of the many reasons it is crucial we do so. The following three exercises are composed of sentiments my patients expressed over the years that allowed them to shed survivor, separation, and disloyalty guilt. Taken together, they represent powerful rationales for reengaging in life and they offer various avenues through which we can each seek to do so.


The following writing exercise includes sentiments expressed by people who suffered from survivor guilt but found ways to manage and overcome it. Write a brief paragraph about how relevant sentiments might apply to your own circumstance.

  1. Morris was seventy-two when he lost his wife of fifty-one years to a heart attack. “I realized it was unfair of me to mourn for so long. She would have wanted me to enjoy the life I had left.”
  2. Sylvia, a breast cancer survivor, lost her best friend to the disease. “If I don’t live my life to the fullest it would be as if the cancer claimed another victim. I decided it would be wrong to let cancer claim another victim.”
  3. Joey was a father of three who lost his wife in a car accident when she was running an errand he was supposed to do himself. “I felt dead inside for many months. But I realized I had to get out of it. Otherwise my kids would feel as though they had lost both parents.”
  4. Jeremiah was the only member of his high school football team to get a full scholarship to a top university. He felt guilty about it for months and then spoke with his pastor. “He made me realize it would be ungrateful of me to deny the gifts and chances I was given. The best way for me to show gratitude is to take full advantage of them.”
  5. Shandra was the sole member of her department to survive a brutal round of layoffs. “I decided I’m going to excel, advance, and get to a position of authority so I can make sure good employees don’t get fired.”

The following writing exercise includes sentiments expressed by people who overcame or learned to manage the separation guilt that arose when focusing on their own lives meant being less focused on the needs of a loved one. Write a brief paragraph describing how relevant sentiments might apply to your own circumstance.

  1. Billy is the father of a severely disabled child. “Caregiving is emotionally stressful and extremely depleting. I figured out that when I make time to do things that bring me satisfaction and, yeah, even joy, I have much more to give.”
  2. Wanda looks after an elderly parent. “I always keep the airplane demonstrations in mind. In case of emergency, first put on your own oxygen mask and then tend to the other person. You can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself.”
  3. Marsha’s severely depressed husband would break down in tears whenever she went out with friends. “I stayed home for months until I realized that by going out and enjoying life I’m not projecting callousness, I’m modeling optimism.”
  4. Cam and Bev felt guilty about leaving their twin toddlers with a babysitter. “They cried like they were being slaughtered the first time we left. But we realized that the more we coddled them the less resilient and the less independent they would be. Even if it hurts sometimes, we have to be able to have date nights both for our sakes and for theirs.”

The following writing exercise includes sentiments expressed by people who overcame or learned to manage their disloyalty guilt. Write a brief paragraph describing how relevant sentiments might apply to your own circumstance.

  1. Levi, an accountant, was an orthodox Jew who fell in love with and married a non-Jewish woman. His entire family felt betrayed but none more so than his father. “His feelings are understandable. But if I let him dictate how I should live my life he’d be basically leading two lives and I’d be leading none—and that isn’t fair either.”
  2. Juan’s Catholic father refused to accept his homosexuality. “I supported my dad when he got fired from his job even though I was a kid and it made it hard on me too. Remembering that made me realize I deserve the same support from him. So instead of apologizing, I started demanding he show me respect for having the honesty to live the life I believe in.”
  3. Lucas came from a long line of home-schooled children. When he enrolled his daughter in first grade at a private school, his mother, a home-schooling advocate, took it as a personal rejection. “It didn’t matter how much I tried to explain, she simply couldn’t get over it. But I realized I was not willing to sacrifice doing what I know is right for my child because it might hurt someone’s feelings.”
Dosage: Administer this treatment fully and repeat as necessary whenever you feel surges of guilt about moving on or living your own life.

Effective for: Reducing guilt and self-condemnation.

When to Consult a Mental Health Professional

If you have applied the treatments in this chapter and you still feel overwhelming guilt, if you are unable to apply them for whatever reason, or if your guilt still impairs your quality of life and your relationships, consult a mental health professional to assess whether there might be other psychological factors at play, such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

If you find the exercises in Treatment B too difficult to complete, or if you’re concerned about your ability to come up with accurate assessments of your responsibility, you might benefit from discussing the events and your feelings about them with a trained mental health professional. If your guilt is so severe you have thoughts of hurting yourself or another person, consult a mental health professional immediately or go to the nearest emergency room.





Which book you would like to read next? Comment Below.

Don't forget to share this post!


Popular posts from this blog

Wealth is What You Don't See

The art of staying young while growing old

‘Making People Glad To Do What You Want'