October 15th 2021

Do you need to feel it? How can you let it go?


As a kid, my Mum was a big baker.  One afternoon she had baked a big batch of cookies and left them on the kitchen windowsill to cool.  I was given clear instructions not to touch them as they were for tea time.

And yep, you guessed it.  As soon as she turned her back, I snuffled a couple and ran off up the garden to devour my still steaming goodies.

And they had barely made it into my tummy before guilt came knocking!

Turn the clock forward 25 years.  My brother had had a serious brain injury and I had stepped up to care for him and manage his life.  As a wife, and mother of 2 young kids at the time, juggling more plates than I could count, I was often overwhelmed with guilt that I was not doing more for Mark.

It was at that point through working with a therapist, I learnt what I now share with my clients about guilt.

What is the purpose of guilt?

All emotions have a purpose – ultimately to keep us safe.  Guilt’s role in this objective is learning.  We feel guilt as an indicator that you have done something that is ‘wrong’ and therefore caused risk, either directly or indirectly to yourself.

My little pilfering had, in my young mind, put me at risk of a telling off by Mum.  She was no monster but honesty was a big value in our home and any dishonesty was given short shrift!  Very quickly, the pleasure of those melting choc chips was massively over-ridden by my mind reviewing all the possible out comes: Mum not noticing – Not likely!  Mum asking if I had taken them. Should I confess or lie?  And if she challenged the lie…..well I guess you are familiar with how the mind likes to play out all those scenarios.

And in that little juvenile mind, that incident was loaded up with all scenarios, none of which were positive, resulting in a direct risk from the repercussions of Mum finding out.

And hence the feeling of guilt sat there, uncomfortable in that memory, reminding me that taking things I was not supposed to was not a good idea!  Guilt was reminding me to be at my best, keeping me safe from inciting further risk.

So why did you feel guilty about your brother?

And then along came Mark’s (big bro) situation.  Realistically there were not enough hours in the day to do all that needed to be done to keep my life, my kids life, the home, the job, and now the demands of supporting him….all still spinning.  I felt that I was failing him – in other words, not doing my best.  And what reference was that linked to….yep guilt.

I felt like that black lab for a long time, until I learned to ask myself 2 questions.

1. What was your intention?

Ask yourself what your intention was in the action you took.

So my little 6 year old self had the intention of enjoying a cookie (or 3!), knowing it would mean less for others.  That was a selfish act and thus guilt was appropriate as it did it’s job.  The discomfort was enough of a learning to stop me from taking things that I was not supposed to.  And in doing so, reducing the risk of the implications of stealing in the future.

And my adult self – the answer to the question was very different.  My intention was to do all I could to help my brother.  My limitation was there only being 24 hours in day!  As my intention came from a place of love, kindness, there was no risk, no learning required.

2. Are you doing the best you can?

Having identified the link of guilt to risk, the next step is to ask yourself if you are doing your best.

6 year old me – definitely not.  My best was to use the values I had been taught.  They were not in play when it came to the cookies.  So again, guilt has a role to upping my future game.

Big sis role – and it was a yes!  I was doing my best but I felt my best was not good enough.  And I suspect many of us have felt this at times.

Time is, I believe one of the only things that we all have as a fixed resource.  No-one has more than 24 hours in a day.  Where we have choice is how we use those hours.

My next step was to then decide on my priorities.  First came the kids, closely followed by Nick.  Then came Mark.  Below that my aging parents.  And with this structure, checking if I was doing my best became much easier.  If the kids were sorted, I could give time to Nick.  If all was good there, then I could give time to Mark.

One of Nick’s favourite sayings is, “Life is fully of s####y compromises.”  And that can sometimes be true.  I would love to be able to look after all of those people in my life but time makes compromises necessary.  But putting Mark above my kids, for me, would have led to higher levels of discomfort.

You are not responsible for other's behaviour

Often we feel guilty based on the response of others.  You may do something from a place of kindness, but it is not received as such and you get negative back lash.

And this is the hardest bit….

YOU ARE ONLY IN CONTROL OF YOUR ACTION. You cannot control the behaviour of others.

And that is where going back to question 1 is most important.  If you acted out of kindness, from a place of positivity, then there is no place for guilt.

So how do I let guilt go?

Ask yourself these 2 questions:

Was my intention positive?

Am I doing my best?

If you can answer them both positively, then there is no place for guilt.

If you answered no to one of them, then there is learning to be had.  Make that learning, adjust your behaviour and move on.  Holding on to guilt will only keep you stuck.

My brother is still a demand on my time but my priorities remain.  I do the best I can and whilst others may judge my priorities to be wrong, I am not responsible for their decisions, only mine!

I love my big bro, I feel sad for his situation but that is warranted.  But guilt is a thing of the past, and I can honestly say, I have never stolen a cookie again 🙂

Caroline Cavanagh is an anxiety specialist  and hypnotherapist in Salisbury, Wiltshire.  She is an author and public speaker and would love to talk to you if you would like to know more about her work or would like to chat more about guilt.

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One response to “Guilt”

  1. Brian Fisk says:

    When my wife was dying of cancer I tried hard to do all I could for her. I didn’t always get it right and I wasn’t perfect. I live with the thought that I did the best I could. I know in hindsight I could have done some things better. Is anyone perfect? Who is judging me? I can’t change the past and other people’s views don’t matter. If I had to do the same task again I would do it better. I don’t feel guilty as I did the best I was able to. I know that Pat was very happy that I stayed with her and did the best I could. She is the only one whose opinion I value on the matter.

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