As submitted for publication in Recorder Community Newspapers, August 18, 2005

“I feel bad that… ” is a phrase I’ve heard so many times that it seems to echo in my head. Patient after patient repeat it as they expresses their distress.

“I feel bad that I was not there enough for my children,” laments Jan, a single mother who had to work to sustain her family.

“I feel bad that I’m not making Mary feel better,” Joan says painfully as she explains that her friend is depressed about being diagnosed with cancer.

“I feel bad that I’m not doing more to take care of my mom,” cries Amy after her mother refused to move in with her.

It’s such a common phrase that most people assume that it’s meaning is clear and simple. This is not necessarily so. Fortunately, several years ago, I began asking more intently about what these people meant.

When you say, “I feel bad that…”, think about what you mean. Are you saying that you are feeling sympathetic to someone’s situation? Or, that you are feeling guilty for something you have done—or failed to do? Perhaps you are saying that you are a bad, as in mean, person. In my experience, people are often saying some combination of all of these things, and even more. Let’s consider each of these three meanings.

Sympathy: If you value yourself as a caring person, you likely see yourself as being sympathetic to others. You are aware of their pain and suffering and want to be helpful. In this case, saying you feel bad is a way of saying, “I hurt for you.”

Being sympathetic does not require you to fix a person or situation. It is, by itself, a reflection of who you are, which you can feel good about. It is also frequently helpful for others to hear and feel that they are being understood and cared about. If you are in a situation in which you can help more, so much the better.

Guilt: If you are “feeling bad” because you are not effectively taking care of someone or something, then you are struggling with guilt or feeling inadequate. In this case, ask yourself whether the expectation you set for yourself is realistic. While you can influence others, you cannot make them accept the help you offer. This applies to efforts to cheer someone up as well as to efforts to offer concrete help.

If what you are offering falls short of what is needed, consider whether it is realistic to expect that you (in your role) can offer more. For instance, friends are not therapists whose role it is to guide someone out of depression. And, even if you are trying to help in a way that fits your role, it is important to accept your limits. A single mother can prioritize spending time with her children, but she simply cannot be there all of the hours that a stay at home mother can be. So I ask again, are you being realistic when you view yourself as guilty?

If not, then it is time to recognize how you are imposing an unfair sentence on yourself. Render a “not guilty” decision, be sympathetic to your own struggle with this situation, and focus your energies more constructively.

If you are “feeling bad” because you really are guilty of something, then accept responsibility. However, perpetually penalizing yourself with a label of being guilty doesn’t accomplish anything positive. In fact, it only serves to reinforce thinking negatively toward yourself. Instead, find way to live with your mistake and make amends, if possible. Focus on what you have learned from your mistake and make plans to act differently in the future.

Being mean: Some people learn early in life that they are essentially bad or mean in some way. If you are one of these people, then you are literally saying that you are a bad person when you say, “I feel bad.” You, no doubt, struggle often with this belief about yourself. It is a deep wound that you carry with you; it is a wound in need of healing.

Consider the message that you are a bad person. Is that really true? Do you really believe that people are born into this world as bad people? If you don’t believe this about other people, then maybe it is time to start questioning this belief about yourself. Finally, consider this: If you truly were a bad or mean person, you wouldn’t really care whether your actions were hurting others.

Healing from this kind of pain takes time, focused energy, and compassion for yourself. It is a difficult process, and you would likely benefit from counseling with a therapist.

Whatever your situation, pay attention to when you say, “I feel bad that…” Question what you mean by it. Be specific. Feeling sympathetic for someone in pain can be a healthy, though difficult, experience as a caring person. However, falsely labeling yourself as guilty or mean is unnecessary self-punishment. If you are suffering from such a punishment, it is time to set yourself free.

The names mentioned do not represent actual people.

The Recorder Newspapers has over 250,000 readers and publishes weekly editions in 19 newspapers, which cover Morris, Somerset, Essex and Hunterdon counties of New Jersey.

Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Basking Ridge, NJ