Why do I feel guilty?

Why do I feel guilty whenever something wrong happens? Why should I question myself and my actions whenever someone is unhappy? I tend to blame myself when someone is upset or not in the mood even If I am not the one to blame. I start to question myself, my action, my worth and whether they actually care, love, value and respect me. Do they treat me the same as I treat them? Do they place me in their lives the same as I do?
Asked by Galie

Hi Galie, thank you for your question where you asked about guilt and trying to understand where this chronic guilt comes from. Of course, without sitting down with you and discussing the specifics, this answer can only be quite general, but nevertheless I hope it will be helpful to you.

You ask, "why do I feel guilty when something wrong happens?" This is a question only you can answer as you are the one inside your own mind, but let's consider what is happening here. You say you question yourself and your actions whenever someone is unhappy. It sounds like whenever something hasn't worked out to plan or someone expresses discomfort, you become uncomfortable and anxious and run through a mental checklist of your own actions to see what may have contributed to this situation. You ask why you "should" do this and that you tend to do this even when you rationally know you are not to blame for the circumstances. It seems like you are taking a lot of responsibility for a situation and there can be multiple reasons for this.

For instance, it may be that you are struggling with anxiety at the moment, which can make us perceive threats that actually aren't there as our mind is in a state of hyper vigilance. This could lead you to imputing causes of bad situations to yourself, instead of seeing things in a neutral light. This is usually due to a desire to control other people's moods and circumstances as a means of safeguarding yourself from negative repercussions. If someone is in a bad mood or things haven't worked out to plan, what does this mean for you? Perhaps you're worried that they will be angry with you, or they will look to you to fix things, even if things aren't your fault. What is it that causes anxiety in this situation? How would you like to act differently? And, if you refused to take any responsibility for the circumstances, and gave your mind permission to "walk away" from this cycle of blame, what do you think the outcome would be? Reflecting on these questions may help you understand why your mind feels the need to blame yourself for other people's problems.

Oftentimes, people who make themselves feel responsible for other people's moods have experienced this in their past in some way. It could be that at some point in your past, maybe even your childhood, there was a person in your life who took their anger and hostility out on you, and therefore made it "your problem". That way, even if you weren't to blame, you suffered the ill effects of their bad mood. This could cause you to automatically blame yourself if someone is upset you with, because you have experienced this in your past. It could also cause you to be very careful and hyper attentive to other people's moods or difficult situations, because you have learned that you may be punished for things. This "guilt" that you're feeling may actually stem from a desire to keep yourself from being hurt by other people.

You say that you question yourself, your actions, your worth, and whether other people actually love and care about you. This suggests to me that you are suffering from low self-esteem and have trouble believing that you have unconditional self worth. This is an important thing to discuss with a therapist who can talk things through with you and help you work out ways of overcoming this problem. It could be that you have been taught to seek social approval and always be the "nice guy", lest someone be angry with you or dislike you. Perhaps the only way you can feel good about yourself is if you're assured that you are being "nice" and always putting other people's needs first. This is a difficult state to be in because, as you say, you can then feel guilty if someone else is unhappy, because you feel obliged to rescue them from their distress.

There are a few ways to start working through this, but a good starting point is consciously recognizing that you are not a knight in shining armor who has to rescue people from their own poor choices or their own negative emotions, and that by doing so, you could actually be stopping people from learning about themselves and making better choices in future. The next time you start feeling guilty about something, take a moment to yourself and ask yourself, "why am I making this my problem? What do I think will happen if I don't step in? Why am I giving myself so much responsibility and power over this other person's life?" Then become aware of your thoughts. Rather than going through an itinerary of your own actions and self-worth, firmly tell yourself, "I am not responsible for other people's issues and I don't need to question myself". Understand that it may be anxiety or trauma causing you to feel this way, not reality itself. And if a person is treating you badly in your life and making you feel like you need to rescue them, this not a healthy relationship to stay in, and you may need to set some boundaries or walk away from it entirely.

Thank you for your question and I hope my response is of some help to you. I wish you all the best for your future,