Thursday, 23 February 2017

Weekly Discussion Summary ~ Guilt

What a talking point this week's discussion about guilt turned out to be! 

Naz introduced guilt (and shame) as self-conscious, negative emotions that are directed at the self, which involve being critical, ashamed, and self-depreciating. Often, the anger is self-directed. In the context of trauma, guilt and shame have been extensively studied in relation to childhood abuse as well as more recently in the context of ‘survivor’s guilt’ post trauma, for example accidents, war, casualties, and cancer. A link below takes you to a paper that reviews research on guilt and shame quite nicely.

Naz found little research carried out on guilt in the context of cancer, but because guilt and shame are known to be risk markers for depression, they have been studied implicitly in depression. With the exception of a couple of studies, there is hardly any evidence related to 'guilt' in breast cancer – she found an interesting Huffpost article, which is not research based, and a link to that is also provided below.

Our discussion included women living with breast cancer and it's effects, including women recently diagnosed as well as women with secondary breast cancer. Our common experience of feeling guilty manifested itself in myriad ways - from that first diagnosis when we ask why me? And - what did I do wrong? Our long list of guilty feelings poured out: why didn’t I find my cancer earlier? How awful we had found it to share the burden of our illness with our loved ones, causing them anguish and worry. Then for those of us who have come out the other side of treatment, there’s survivor’s guilt – why am I doing ok when another didn’t make it? Those of us with secondary breast cancer feel a sense of guilt about the impact of our illness on our children, including the painful knowledge that we might not be able to support and guide them into adulthood. Those of us with faulty genes shared our guilt about finding out, the worry that relatives may have the gene too and whether we’ve passed the fault on to our children.

Catholic guilt was mentioned and a deeply ingrained sense of responsibility for getting cancer. Then, of course there’s our work – we feel we let down our employers, our colleagues. We are continually apologising to everyone around us for having cancer. Our guilt spreads to the everyday stuff - that we don’t feel well enough to get everything done that we used to do, that we have to ask for help, that others have to care for our children, that we can’t exercise as much as we used to, that we can’t eat as well as we’d like to, because we don’t have the energy to cook, that we can’t engage fully with all the social events going on around us, that we have to pace ourselves, rest and relax (we are lazy, is how we unhelpfully see it.) The list goes on and on.......

But as our list grew, some of us began counteracting with questions, suggesting to one another that we had no need to take on so much guilt, and with this came the realisation that we are full of good advice for others, but reluctant - or find it difficult - to listen to ourselves.

And then came the voice of reason: ‘Why is guilt an acceptable emotion and others not?... I think that guilt is a harsh emotion to inflict on yourself just to make others feel better. Other people's emotions are their responsibility - don't make them yours.’ This point made a real impact on many of us, and brought us back to the negative futility of the guilt. Some of us shared that we don’t feel guilty, we know that getting cancer isn’t our fault, we didn’t do anything to deserve it, it’s just the hand we’ve been dealt with in life.

Naz questioned whether guilt serves a purpose, whether it can have a useful function in some cases? Our discussion came up with no easy answers, and our conclusions perhaps were more around how we can be resilient about our feelings in general – our anger, our sadness, our frustration, our sense of unfairness, our regret. We wondered whether embracing these emotions night allow us to be more truly be in touch with ourselves and to reframe our guilt. We often talk about self-compassion in our group, and this discussion highlighted once again how hard we can be on ourselves and that if we are kinder to ourselves, perhaps we can stop wasting so much of our precious energy on feeling guilty. Our discussion concluded with a powerful reminder that we are strong, powerful, vibrant, passionate women with rich and full lives.

If you are a woman with a breast cancer diagnosis and you would like to join our private group, please message us on our public page:

Link to the review paper:


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