Toxic guilt is the unreasonable guilt you feel for things that are beyond your control. Where does it come from? It is usually the legacy of a traumatic childhood. Because of what psychologists call self-referencing, children blame themselves when something goes wrong in their home. There is no logic to this, it is just a fact. Children with undeveloped egos see themselves as the center of the universe and take responsibility for everything. They think, “If mother is angry, then it is my fault. I am a bad person.” This leads to feelings of shame and toxic guilt.
This phase of childhood development has a lasting impact on our adult lives. The feelings of guilt live on in our unconscious mind and float to the surface now and then when we least expect them. This gets in the way of change because it weighs us down. Like depression, toxic guilt saps our energy and keeps us in survival mode. We have to spend all of our time fighting off the feelings of shame and guilt, and as a result there is no time or desire to change.
Legitimate guilt can become toxic if you do not forgive yourself in recovery. After I got sober I made amends to my son, but I continued to feel guilty. Out of guilt I let him bully me and take advantage of me. After some work in recovery I learned to exchange guilt for remorse and move on with my life.
To counteract toxic guilt, we must use positive reinforcement. We must counter the free-floating feelings of guilt with an awareness of the truth that we are not to blame for our childhood, and we do not have to be burdened with guilt for the rest of our lives for the things we did before recovery.
Most of all, we must not act on this toxic guilt. For instance, codependents live lives of quiet desperation trying to get rid of this toxic guilt by taking care of people in unhealthy ways. We must stop doing this and erase the toxic guilt, to the best of our ability, in positive ways like loving ourselves, helpings others in recovery, and when appropriate forgiving ourselves.
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