“I hate feeling this way. Whenever I am depressed I become convinced that I’m useless and that I’m no good to anyone. I lose all my energy and motivation and end up sitting around the house all day doing nothing. I know I should be out there working and being productive. Because I’m not doing anything, I know my family have to work harder. I can see how my problems are affecting them. At the end of the day, I shouldn’t feel this way - there are people out there who have it much worse than me.”

 Guilt can be a really problematic emotion. Looking at the example above, the individual is already feeling pretty low and is struggling to find the motivation to do anything. Their lack of energy and thoughts of low-self worth are common symptoms of depression, but their situation is made all the more challenging by the secondary emotion of guilt. They feel guilty because they are not working. They feel guilty because their family is supporting them. They feel guilty because they believe that there are people out there who are suffering more than they are.

The individual is already feeling unhappy and disempowered but these waves of guilt will only serve to drag them deeper into depression. Guilt becomes even more tricky to handle because we tend to keep such emotions hidden away from others. Secreted away deep inside us, feelings of shame and guilt grow. The more guilty or ashamed we are about what we are going through, the less likely we are to seek out help. It’s a cruel downward spiral, an emotional trap that is all too easy to fall into.

So, what can we do? The first thing to accept when suffering from anxiety, depression or other mental health issues is that you are unwell. You aren’t mad or somehow irreparably broken, you’re just not functioning at your best at that moment in time. Would we expect someone with two broken legs to crawl into work every day? Of course not! We would expect that person to rest and recuperate until they are walking again. During that time of healing it is likely that they will need extra support from family and friends. Isn’t that what family and friends are for? Would we not do the same for them?

The next step is to challenge our “shoulds”. When we think rigidly in terms of “I should do this or that” we are opening ourselves up to feelings of disappointment, shame or guilt when we don’t reach our target. It is far healthier to approach things with a more flexible and self-forgiving attitude (“It would be nice if I could be more productive, but I might not be up to it at the moment”). By avoiding “all or nothing” rigid thoughts, we give ourselves the freedom to be ourselves without being weighed down with unrealistic or unhealthy expectations. 

Finally, we should talk to someone about how we are feeling. Feelings of guilt and shame can seem overwhelming when we keep them to ourselves. Simply sharing these emotions with someone else can help lighten the load. Although we are getting better about discussing mental health issues, it is our duty to address the ongoing stigma as a community.

Taigh Sàmhchair: professional counselling and psychotherapy

Hereward Proops MBACP, registered member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy

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