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In my practice, I have defined two distinct types of guilt. In this section, we will discuss these two distinct types of guilt, which are: unrealistic guilt and realistic guilt. As I describe these two types of guilt, think about how you might use the ideas with clients you are treating.
Two Types of
Though clients may genuinely feel blameworthy, usually self-blaming guilt is unrealistic. Do you agree? I stated to Anna, "Have you ever considered that you are being overly harsh with yourself? It sounds like you’re stretching your imagination to believe you are responsible for anticipating or preventing events that you could not possibly have prevented." Through unrealistic guilt, Anna felt as if she had intentionally brought harm to her father.
identified other examples of the unrealistic guilt which
she had experienced by stating:
As you know, in the early stages of grief, arguing against unrealistic guilt is not productive. I usually feel at some point unrealistic guilt needs to be addressed. In a later session with Anna, I stated, "If you had been able to act differently, then you would have acted differently. It’s not in your power to anticipate everything perfectly." By listening attentively for signals of unrealistic guilt it was possible to help Anna recognize how she was blaming herself unnecessarily.
♦ #2 Realistic Guilt
For example, Robert, age 38, had given his son Peter a BB gun for his birthday. Robert stated, "I set up a target on the side of the garage for him to shoot at. I should have thought about a possible ricochet, but instead I just left him there to shoot on his own. Peter came in later crying ‘I’ve been shot!’ There was a lot of blood, so I called 9-1-1. Poor Peter had actually shot his eye out. Now the kid is walking around with a glass eye. What kind of father am I?"
Robert’s feelings of guilt are realistic because he was responsible for Peter’s accident with the BB gun. I stated to Robert, "You are right to feel guilty about the accident. However, there is no need to punish yourself, though, Robert. It was an accident." In Robert’s situation of realistic guilt, I found that by listening to him express his feelings and reinforcing the idea that he did not intentionally harm his son, I could help him forgive himself.
♦ 4-Step Moving Beyond Guilty Feelings Technique
--The first step in this technique is to identify as many guilty feelings as possible. I asked Anna to make a list of all the "if" statements she could think of. As you know, "if" statements are part of the vocabulary of grief clients. Anna’s "if’ statements included "If I had been home the day Dad died, maybe he could have pulled through." "If only I had rented a more comfortable hospital bed, he would have felt more at home." "Maybe if I hadn’t focused on work so much he could have died feeling loved."
--The second step is to analyze the "if" statements with the client for content. Some questions I asked Anna were, "Is this statement realistic or unrealistic?", "Could anyone else have done what you wish you had done?", and "Do you believe the statement to be true?" Anna’s answers indicated she was beginning to distrust her unrealistic guilty feelings.
--The third step in the "Moving Beyond Guilty Feelings" technique is to prompt the client to dispute any unrealistic guilt. With Anna, the second and third steps ran together as her answers to my questions were elaborate. You may find, as I did with Anna, that as the client identifies and lists guilty feelings, he or she may begin to analyze and dispute those feelings naturally.
--The fourth step is to ask the client to write down new feelings to replace the guilty feelings. For example, Anna wrote ‘Dad was happy he did not have to die in a hospital’ and ‘Dad knew I cared for him very much.’
In this section, we discussed feelings of guilt. In
my practice, I have defined two distinct types of guilt. They are unrealistic
guilt and realistic guilt.
Captari, L. E., Riggs, S. A., & Stephen, K. (2020). Attachment processes following traumatic loss: A mediation model examining identity distress, shattered assumptions, prolonged grief, and posttraumatic growth. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Advance online publication.
Finlay, L. D. (2015). Evidence-based trauma treatment: Problems with a cognitive reappraisal of guilt. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 35(4), 220–229.