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Toxic Guilt: How To Stop Feeling Responsible For Other People’s Happiness

People who are more empathetic that others can be strongly tuned in to the thoughts and feelings of those around them. They’re great at noticing changes in people’s behaviour, facial expressions and voice tone. They can easily place themselves in the other person’s shoes – being able to experience their pain and happiness.

Are you a highly sensitive person who seeks to please others and is always there to pick them up when they fall? If so, then you might be prone to experiencing toxic guilt.

What is guilt and is it always bad?

Guilt is a feeling we experience when;

1. We’ve done something that we shouldn’t have done

2. We failed to do something that we should have done

For example, when we feel responsible another person’s wellbeing, health or happiness, when we feel guilty for the events that occur in other people’s lives or for not meeting another person’s expectations, judgments or standards. This includes feeling guilty for your own feelings, such as “I don’t love my husband anymore”. Put simply, toxic guilt is when we experience guilt without having done anything wrong. It occurs when:

· You’re a people pleaser. You need others to like you and you can’t stand it when someone thinks badly of you. Other people may have more control over you than you’d like them to and can easily manipulate you into feeling guilty.

· You find it hard to say no and as a result you struggle to prioritise your own health and wellbeing. You constantly find yourself serving and saving others and sacrificing your own needs.

· You’re sensitive and compassionate. You may feel responsible for other people’s happiness and/or health. As a result, you may constantly obsess over another person’s circumstances and wellbeing. You may obsessively research ways to help them and shower them with advice even when they fail to listen.

· You feel guilty for having things in your life that another person (e.g. parent) doesn’t have. E.g. money, happiness, a caring partner. You may obsess over how you could change their situation. You may also feel like you don’t deserve to have those things in your life or like the other person deserves them more than you do. This can ultimately stop you from enjoying your life.

How to overcome toxic guilt and regain control

A licensed counsellor and therapist, Susan Carrell (author of Escaping Toxic Guilt), came up with a 3-step-method to overcoming toxic guilt: speak your truth, claim territory and brace for the storm. In this blog post, we’ll explore these and more steps you can take to help you regain control of your life and emotions.

Not all victims need to be saved

There are people in your life who will exploit you for your empathy and compassion. This isn’t to say that they’re bad people who want to hurt you. In fact, most are people with their own deeply rooted issues, who are unaware of the effect they have on your wellbeing. Have compassion for them but learn to recognise when you’re not the one responsible. Here’s two types of people you should look out for:

· Pseudo-victims. According to Carrell, there are two types of victims out there: real victims and pseudo-victims. Real victims are people that both need and deserve our help. Pseudo-victims are those that pretend to be real victims. “Pseudo-victims are those who could overcome the adversities of their lives and move forward but choose not to. Rather than take responsibility for improving their lot in life, they look to others to make life easier for them”. You can’t help a pseudo-victim, as they’re either not willing or ready to be helped.

· The martyr complex. People with the martyr complex constantly seek ways in which they can suffer to make themselves feel better. They like to portray themselves as the good guy and a caretaker. They also like to remind others of the sacrifices they’ve made, and they often exaggerate their struggles. These people can be excellent manipulators, triggering feelings of toxic guilt in you (unknowingly or knowingly) by saying things like “Go and have fun, I’ll stay home by myself like I always do” or “I’ve done [x]/so much for you and this is how you repay me”. They know exactly what strings to pull to control your actions.

Recognise and label your feelings

Simply acknowledging and labelling your feelings as toxic guilt can reassure you that what you’re feeling is irrational.

Imagine that you have a sister called Carol. Carol’s recently been fired, and she’s been struggling to find work ever since. She’s been feeling angry at the world and isn’t putting much effort into finding employment. You’re constantly trying to fix Carol’s situation - sending her links to job listings, offering advice and sending her a bunch of helpful resources – but she isn’t putting it to good use. She enjoys feeling sorry for herself and chooses to remain negative about her career prospects, triggering your toxic guilt.

Simply saying to yourself: “I’m feeling guilt right now. I feel responsible for Carol’s happiness. I’ve tried to help her, but the rest is outside of my control” can help.

Say it out loud

Verbalising your feelings to others is a crucial element of your recovery process. Find a person you can trust and confess to the guilt you’ve been feeling. For example:

· “My mom is driving me crazy. She demands my help all the time. I know she’s getting older and she needs me. I feel so guilty that I’m feeling this way”.

Talking to a trusted friend or a family member will have many benefits for you. Firstly, it will give you the support you need to deal with your situation. Secondly, they may offer you another point of view, an objective look at things or a solution you’ve not been able to find yourself.

Develop a sense of respect for your own health

Guilt-ridden people often prioritise the needs and desires of others over their own. You might feel like it’s selfish to take care of yourself, but self-care is essential to your own mental and physical health. It allows you to recharge, to take a step back and breathe, and prevents you from forming feelings of resentment towards the other person.

· Recognise that your own desires are just as important as those of others. Don’t place yourself below anybody else.

· Don’t neglect or sacrifice your own health for others. When needed, take some time to yourself to regain energy.

· Be kind to yourself. The changes you’re making to overcome toxic guilt can make you feel self-critical, e.g. “She’s really struggling. How can I be feeling this way?”. Use compassion to tame your inner critic and remind yourself that it’s okay to have these emotions. Read more about escaping negative self-talk here:

‘You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink’

Sometimes, despite our constant help and advice, the other person still chooses not to make any positive changes for themselves. E.g. a close friend choosing to stay in a relationship that makes her unhappy. In this case, offer help but know that the situation is outside of your control. Don’t obsess over how you can change their situation if they don’t try to change it themselves. You can offer someone resources and advice, but you can’t force them to act on it.

Set your limits and stick to them

When we feel responsible for another person, our boundaries can become distorted, forming an unhealthy bond between us.

· Learn how to say no, while remaining sensitive to the other person’s feelings. E.g. “I’m sorry, but this doesn’t work for me” or “No, I won’t be able to make it today”.

· Learn to stand your ground calmly but firmly.

Develop thicker skin

We’ve established that you probably care deeply about other people’s feelings and you don’t want to see them hurt. You definitely don’t want them to think badly of you.

Unfortunately, when you begin to reclaim your own physical and emotional territory, people will notice – and they likely won’t like it. They might call you selfish, they might act out or be shocked that you’re not at their every call anymore. It’s essential that you don’t give in and act on your guilt, and that you learn how to tolerate disapproval.

Additional advice

Remember, it’s not about blaming, judging, criticising or alienating everyone who triggers toxic guilt in you. Instead, it’s about learning to create boundaries and develop healthy relationships with those around you. Building relationships that aren’t bound by negative emotions and unhealthy attachments.

Once you start to recognise people who trigger your guilt, it’s important to practice forgiveness. This way you can avoid feeling resentment towards people that you want to love and cherish.

Here’s an additional resource to further help you with your toxic guilt:

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