Your stomach does a flip. Your face gets hot. Your body tightens. Your breath gets more shallow. You start to sweat a bit.
The feeling of guilt washes over you.
But why? When you stop to think a moment, what did you do?
You’re sat at lunch with your family. You mum looks over at you. Says nothing. But there’s a look.
Your body shrinks again.
Dad leans back. There’s something in his body language that tells you he disapproves.
You fold in on yourself. Thoughts start spiralling. What did I do? What did I say? What did I forget or who did I disrespect?
What did I do wrong, rings around in your head as you agonize over your last few hours and days.
At some point it floats away. You numb out, busy yourself. Dig in, because that’s what you do. You cope. Stay strong, but that feeling of unease makes itself known.
Perhaps it’s anxiety about something unrelated. Or feeling low. Or ill. Or tetchy with others, for no particular reason.
Another day, you’re at work. Something has gone wrong. Customers or colleagues are complaining. It’s nothing to do with you. Not even your area. But you feel tormented with guilt.
It’s like being a kid again. Someone breaks a window at school. The whole class is being interrogated. You weren’t involved, but you’re flooded with guilt.
You want to go out to see a film with a friend. Your partner says nothing. Is supportive even. But you feel tormented by uncertainty. That they disapprove. Or wonder if you are up to something. Or that you don’t value them as much.
This is the world of those who’ve experienced narcissistic abuse or emotional neglect.
The most subtle, and unsubtle changes to the environment trigger guilt. Sometimes it’s mild discomfort. Sometimes is crippling and overwhelming.
Why do you get overwhelmed by guilt?
Why the guilt...
These waves of guilt can be exhausting. Confusing. They easily tip into shame, which is a whole other story of pain and discomfort.
But guilt that seems not to belong to anything you’ve said or done can be bewildering.
Or it becomes so pervasive that you tune it out as part of ‘normal service.’
If you grew up with emotional neglect or narcissistic abuse, guilt gets woven into the fabric of your existence.
When a parent is at best inconsistent in their attention or at worst abusive to the point of denying you your sense of self. Insisting that their view of the world is the only valid one. Or making their love and attention conditional on you following their way.
Then you develop a very active guilt trigger. You become hypervigilant for doing wrong.
The wrong look. The wrong phrase. The wrong clothes. The wrong attitude. The wrong touch.
You could probably write a catalogue of the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ in your family if you stop for a minute. In fact, why not try it and see what comes up.
And if nothing comes up, that’s actually quite normal too. These experiences become ingrained in the place of automatic response. Out of your conscious awareness. But if you do remember, here are some examples that might resonate:
- Not showing gratitude
- Not taking care of them and their needs
- Getting cross back
- Having secrets or private thoughts
- Showing feelings
- Wanting attention
- Anything critical, whether intended or not (a minefield in itself
- Showing them up in a public place
The consequences of transgression, were emotionally seismic.
Rages. Being cold shouldered. Further guilt tripped. Conditions imposed. Ostracisation. Victimisation. Shaming. Exclusion.
In short, being made to feel rubbish.
So in adult life, your radar for potential pitfall situations is hyper alert.
And the guilt is like an early warning sign, that you are being triggered.
You might also think of it as an emotional flashback. Being taken back to a time when you felt, out of sight, marginalised, dismissed, unloved for being who you are.
Knowing this can really help. It’s a sign that you are being thrown back into a different state, which triggers guilt. A guilt which might be masking other feelings, which you’ve learned to tune out from:
Guilt is an echo from the past. A trigger of an emotional flashback. From a time when life wasn't safe. #narcissisticabuse
It probably starts with a feeling in your body. It rapidly translates into a ‘Yes of course’, even though another part of you is screaming inside ‘I don’t want to.’
It’s very hard to bypass this type of response, because it starts in the body, rather than the mind.
However, it is possible to start changing things, with some really simple tools.
How to neutralise guilt
Here's what you can do.
In terms of our evolution and society, guilt has a useful purpose. It sets some taboos for what is and isn’t acceptable in the group. So the aim isn’t to live guilt-free.
That’s the realm of the narcissist and sociopath.
What you want is to be able to distinguish between healthy guilt and toxic guilt.
So here are some simple steps to help you with that.
1 Get to really know what guilt feels like in your body
This is all about learning to detect the early warning signs. How does guilt appear in your body? Is it a sinking feeling in your stomach. A tightening? A crushing or a squeezing? Is it a feeling of collapse? Does you get hotter or colder?
Whatever the pattern for you, it’s important you are really familiar with the feeling, taking the role of observing it.
2 Ask yourself, ‘Is this true?’
When guilt is triggered, check in with yourself. Can you make a causal link between your behaviour and the guilt?
If the answer is no, tell yourself gently ‘This is an emotional flashback, an echo from the past. I’m ok now. I’m an adult in an adult’s body, experiencing feelings from my past.'
There are other things you can do. I highly recommend Pete Walker’s list of actions you can take for managing emotional flashbacks:
3 If you can make a causal link between your behaviour and your guilt, ask yourself this:
Is my guilt related to an action, that as an adult, I feel bad about? That in all good conscience, I could have done something better with?
So, for example, if you were snappy with a partner or friend and it wasn’t really justified, is this something you could repair?
4 If you feel guilty, but the cause is related to something which feels familiar...
a pattern such as taking responsibility, even when something isn’t your fault, then this may be an emotional flashback.
To get a sense of this, check in again with your body. What sensations are around? What feelings? Is there a heaviness. Has your mood dropped or your anxiety come up. These can be indicators of the flashback.
If this is indeed an emotional flashback, consider how you might soothe yourself. You could try this:
- Breathe deeply, slowing down the outbreath
- Tell yourself ‘I am an adult; these feelings belong to a time when I didn’t feel safe. I am safe now.’
- Consider your child self and how she might be feeling (clue: she’s probably feeling guilty, scared, overwhelmed)
Can you get past guilt?
The bottom line here is that you may not get rid of the feeling of guilt, at least not immediately. But you can change your relationship to it.
Noticing the feeling. Checking in whether it’s justified. Soothing yourself when it isn’t. It's a slow war of attrition. Re-wiring the brain to know that, at the core, you a just fine as you are. Valuable. Loveable. Worth a damn.
If you're struggling with guilt
Sometimes you just need help with this stuff. A mentor, coach or therapist who can support you step by step. Be alongside you when there are setbacks and difficulties. Because there will be.
This isn't necessarily easy or pain free. But it is the route to greater freedom. Which is priceless.
Why not get in touch to find out how we might work together?
I help people just like you overcome the effects of childhood emotional neglect and narcissistic abuse, so they can reclaim their self-esteem and self confidence. Want to talk? Reach out by clicking the button below.
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