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August 2, 2021
What Kind Of Guilt Are You Living With?

Shift Team

A man covering his face with his hands overwhelmed by emotion.

Emotions Are Profoundly Adaptive In Nature 

They help us process complex situational information quickly and automatically so that we can take action that allows us to meet personal needs (i.e. self-protection or support). Emotion identifies what is significant for our well-being and prepares us to take adaptive action. In other words, emotion tells us what is important, and knowing what is important, tells us what we need to do and who we are as an individual. Every feeling has a need and every need has a direction for action. Feelings are experiences that provide information about the present state of the whole person.

Emotion Schemes

Emotion schemes are emotion memory structures that synthesize affective, cognitive and behavioural elements of an experience into internal organizations. These internal organizations are activated quickly — out of awareness — by relevant cues in our environment. Significant life experiences, positive or negative, become coded into our emotion schematic memory. The emotion scheme represents both the situation as interpreted and it’s emotional effect on us. For example, emotional memories of being held in a parent’s arms or experiencing abuse are coded as procedural memories of what happened and how this felt.

Emotional Response Forms

Primary Adaptive Emotions

Primary adaptive emotion in normal human functioning is a direct reaction consistent with the situation and helps us to take appropriate action. For example, if someone is threatening to harm you, anger is an adaptive emotional response because it helps us assert ourselves in attempt to end the threat. Fear would also be an adaptive emotional response to danger and prepares us to take action to reduce the danger by freezing or fleeing.

Maladaptive Emotions

Maladaptive emotions are direct reactions to situations that involve over-learned responses based on previous experiences. These emotion responses no longer help us cope effectively with the situations that elicit them, interfering negatively with our functioning. For example, a client may have learned while growing up that caring was commonly followed by mistreatment. Therefore, he/she may automatically respond with anger and rejection to a therapist’s empathic attunement.

Secondary Reactive Emotions

Secondary reactive emotions stem from adaptive emotions. At times we may react against our initial primary adaptive emotion and it is replaced with a secondary emotion. This “reaction to the reaction” transforms the original emotion and leads to actions that are not fitting to the present situation. For example, a man who is faced with danger and begins to feel fear may believe that this emotion is not “masculine”, which leads him to become angry at the threat or he may experience anger towards himself for being afraid.

Is Your Guilt Adaptive or Maladaptive?

Guilt is an emotion — a cognitive and emotional experience that occurs as a result of feeling as though one has violated a universal moral standard or personal standards they have set for themselves. Feeling the emotion guilt for an action deserving of remorse is normal and necessary. It’s important to feel guilt when you’ve done something wrong. Guilt can be an adaptive emotion; however, it can also become maladaptive when it is over-learned based on previous life experiences. Guilt is a common maladaptive or secondary reactive emotion among clients — are you experiencing maladaptive or secondary reactive guilt? Below are some questions to reflect on that will guide you in determining what type of emotional response you’re experiencing:

  • Primary Adaptive Emotion Responses: Ask yourself — is this what I truly feel at my core? Take a moment to check within. See if this is your most basic feeling about the situation.
  • Maladaptive ResponsesAsk yourself — does this feeling feel like a response to things that have happened to me in the past or does it feel mainly like a response to what’s happening right now? Does this feel like a familiar stuck feeling? Will expressing this feeling help me achieve my goals here?
  • Secondary Reactive Emotion ResponsesAsk yourself — do I feel anything in addition to what I’m most aware of feeling? Take a minute to see if it feels like there is something else underneath that feeling.

This article was written by Ashley Falco during their time at Shift Collab.

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