Why Do We Feel Guilt?

house on the hill
I stayed in this house one night, and promised the owners some photos that I never delivered.

Do You Ever Feel Guilty?

It comes up from time to time for me, and it often brings me back to doing The Work.

But how do you do The Work with guilt? It’s kind of a strange emotion. It’s not like anger, where it’s usually easy to find the stressful thoughts to question. Guilt is a bit more covert.

Here’s What I Notice About Guilt

Underlying my feeling of guilt is often the belief that I need or want someone’s approval.

Not getting their approval can lead to guilt or anger. I feel anger if I’m not getting their approval because of something they are doing. For example, if they are not being fair, or they are being “impossible” to please.

But I feel guilty when I think it’s something I’m doing that is preventing me from getting their approval. For example, if I’m not doing something that they want me to do.

Instead of owning, “I don’t really want to do it,” I opt for guilt. Feeling guilty is a way of holding onto both of my conflicting desires: the desire for their approval, and the desire to stay in my integrity.

By feeling guilty, I don’t have to choose.

Guilt Shows Me My Desire for Approval

And not just my desire for approval, but often a desire for approval that goes against my integrity.

For example, I took the photo above of the little house on the hill covered with flowers back in 2009. I was photographing the balsamroot flowers that spring in Washington State. While wandering the hills, I came across this house and asked for permission to park there and to photograph on their property.

They were very generous and allowed me. And they invited me to stay overnight so that I could get up early the next morning when the light was good. I was grateful, and accepted, and got some great photos the next day. On leaving, I promised them a photo.

But the Problem Was That I Offered Because I Thought I Should

My offer was not 100% sincere. Yes, I was sincerely grateful to them, but I was also in the middle of moving, starting a new job, and dealing with a lot of competition for my time. I was promising them something that I wasn’t in a position to deliver easily.

But instead of not offering it, I acted out of guilt. I did what I thought I should do. And I felt guilty. Guilty, first of all, for leaving my integrity in the first place, and then guilty for not delivering what I said I would.

Over the months and years after that—despite my guilt, or maybe because of it—I could never could bring myself to make good on my promise. To this day, I’ve never sent them a photo. Of course, I conveniently lost their name and address after some time, making it even harder.

So Here Comes The Work

Here are some thoughts I can question:

I want them to think I’m very grateful.
I want them to like my photography.
I want them to remember me glowingly.

Without these thoughts, all of which have to do with getting their approval, I could have stayed in my integrity and not offered any more than I could at the time.

But It’s Never Too Late

I plan to question those thoughts. I may also write a Judge-Your-Neighbor Worksheet on them in the moment when I was promising these things.

And I may also question some other guilty beliefs that have come up since then:

I have to make good on my promise.
If I don’t deliver the photos, they will be disappointed in me.

It’s Funny, I Haven’t Even Done The Work on It Yet

But I’m already feeling lighter.

If I question some of these thoughts related to the guilt, who knows what I may do! I might even drive out to their place and deliver them a CD with all my photos from that shoot.

Not because I want their approval, but only if it feels like my integrity to do so. My work will help me find my truth and open the options for me to take.

Have a great week,

“The irony is that the struggle to win love and approval makes it very difficult to experience them. Chronic approval seekers don’t realize that they are loved and supported not because of but despite their efforts. And the more strenuously they seek, the less likely they are to notice.” Byron Katie, I Need Your Love, Is That True?

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  • Thanks for this! The guilt trip is a regular here in my life and this is right on time. I have often believed it to be a “please don’t disapprove of me” thing yet sometimes it’s a “you are experiencing sadness/pain because of my actions/words”. I’m curious, is that the same? I recently asked my partner if he would please communicate with me as I felt that I am often the last to know about things going on in his life, he will call his mother and tell her every detail of an event and I will know nothing despite being in the next room. I said I feel excluded. It became ‘a situation’ and he berated me for “looking for an argument at a time that he really doesn’t derserve it” ( in my experience he has never owned a criticism) I immediately felt guilty for upsetting and angering him. I apologized and feel guilty to myself for apologizing for something that I feel deserved no apology. I guess I’ve answered the question. I want not so much his approval as his “non-disapproval”.
    Thanks Todd, this was a LONG comment. I feel guilt for writing such a long response and it made me laugh out loud when I noticed that feeling!

  • todd says:

    Gotta chuckle at your feeling guilty for writing a long comment! LOL

    I can definitely see feeling guilty when someone is experiencing sadness/pain because of my actions/words. There is an idea that I’m responsible for his feelings, which of course can be questioned too.

    But ultimately, why do I care? Because I either want his approval or, as you astutely pointed out, I want to avoid his disapproval.

    Maybe that’s why I go into guilt. Maybe that’s my way of manipulating the other person in the hopes that they will see how hard I’m being on myself, and maybe go a little easy on me! Ah the tactics of the mind!

    I love seeing how unnecessary all this is when I simply stay in my integrity, and in my own business.

  • Joan says:

    Hi Todd!

    I really enjoyed this post and was wondering, how are you, the guilt and the photo doing 2 years later?

    Best wishes,

    • Todd says:

      Thanks for asking, Joan. I haven’t thought much about it since I wrote this article. I think just expressing it as I did here shifted something. As I mentioned above, I haven’t done The Work on it formally. Maybe I never will. But I can still feel a little hint of that old stress in there somewhere, so it could be good to go in and do the formal work on it.

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