Guilt is a very intense emotion that I feel for almost every aspect of my life. I know that intense feelings of guilt and shame aren’t limited to people with BPD, but are common feelings for people with chronic depression as well. I’ve often heard people say “guilt and shame are good, they’re what keep people from doing bad things. ” I think that’s such a horrible cop-out definition of morality, to think that the only reason people do good or kind things is because shame has taught them not to do mean things. I also think that type of thinking leads to self-deprecation, depression, and fear of coping, especially for people like myself who have genetic dispositions for mental illness and emotional disorders.

Feeling Guilt Doesn’t Always Mean You’ve Done Something Wrong

When I’m in a depressive episode or crisis, one of the hardest tasks for me to do is talk myself down from the immense guilt I have for my inability to control my emotions. No one is more aware than I am that I shouldn’t feel sad or afraid or angry, so pointing it out to me only fuels my guilt and shame. Since I’ve been in DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy), I’ve been practicing my skills of acknowledging my emotions in a nonjudgmental way. Guilt is a judgment emotion, and it’s the one I struggle with the most.

Why is it a problem that I feel guilt? Because I’ve had it beat into my head that I am lucky to be alive, lucky to have food, lucky to have people that love me, and lucky that I wasn’t born someone else or somewhere else. This doesn’t sound too bad, right? It’s true, my life could be much worse. So why does that actually make me feel worse? I have an emotional disorder, meaning that I cannot control the timing or intensity of my emotions. So if I wake up feeling depressed for no apparent reason, I get to add shame and self-disgust to the mix because I will internally berate myself for being an ungrateful, self-absorped inept child that can’t appreciate her lot in life. The guilt for being weak, for being emotional, for being a burden to my family and friends sets in so deep that I will convince myself that I don’t deserve happiness.

Where Does This Guilt Stem From?

For me, I’m not exactly sure, but I know that I grew up hyper-empathetic to people less fortunate than I was. When I would see a homeless person, I would choke back tears thinking about how cold they were at night. I was terrified of violence in movies because I felt like I could physically feel their pain, and I would have chronic nightmares. What did this do to me psychologically? It made me afraid to enjoy myself knowing that somewhere in the world, people were suffering. At an early age, I had already felt guilt for having nice things, for buying new clothes, or getting expensive Christmas presents. This guilt was so deeply internalized that every time something nice would happen to me, I would remember that there were horrible things happening to others. This made me afraid to be picky, afraid to say no when I didn’t like things, afraid to decline gifts or services when I didn’t want or need them, for fear of being ungrateful.

I hate Christmas time. The thought of socially obligating people to give and accept gifts distresses me beyond comprehension. The more gifts I receive, the more distressed I am, and the more I hate myself for feeling distressed. It’s wrong to feel ungrateful when someone gives something to you, especially when there are so many people that have nothing at all. That’s what I used to think, anyways.

People Have Used Gifts to Control Me on Accident

This is not something that I think that they did on purpose; I believe that they have always had love and the best intentions when gifting me anything. This is caused, again, by the social obligation of gift-giving/receiving. People often give gifts with an invisible contract, which actually changes the gift to a transaction or purchase. If someone gives you a gift, you are obligated to like it, obligated to keep it, obligated to use it. It becomes their investment in your time in the future, something that they can hang over your head when you don’t want to do something that pleases them.

I was gifted a drum set quite a few years back, and it was a lovely and well-intentioned gift, but after receiving it, I was pressured to practice, to the point that they expected me to give up time I dedicated to soccer (which I had been playing since 10 years old). It has always been my dream to be a pro soccer player, not a drummer, so why should I feel guilty if I want to play soccer instead of play drums on a gifted drum set?

How Do I Cope With the Guilt I’ve Accumulated?

I’m afraid to buy new things, especially expensive things, because I’ve been told I’m selfish, ungrateful and childish in the past, but I’m learning to cope. Environment is important. I’m finding what a world of difference it makes to be around people who validate the things you love and enjoy. I’m less and less afraid of being judged for the things I like to do, whether useless or not, and that is giving more and more confidence to pursue more ambitious accomplishments in the things that I love, such as writing, art, and soccer. I’m learning that there is a way to set boundaries with myself and others, and that is helping me understand that I’m not obligated to feel anything because of someone else’s hurt feelings when they were overstepping their boundaries. I try my best to let the people around me be their authentic self, without any expectations for appeasing my needs besides respect and compassion, and so I try not to feel guilty when I do something and am not met with the same attitude or respect.

I’m no angel. This isn’t something I’ve always done. I’ve had my fair share of being controlling, judgmental, and overbearing to the people I’ve loved. Although I feel remorse, I’ve done my best to acknowledge my wrong-doing and also acknowledge that those people were also doing their best. All that I can do now is learn who I am, trust that I have strong morals and that they will lead me down the right path, and use the tools that I’m learning to cope with my emotional instability so that I don’t hurt myself or others.

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