Guilt is one of the most difficult emotions we experience as humans. It can eat away at us causing us significant suffering.
Many of us feel unnecessarily guilty about everything. The layers of guilt weigh us down and prevent us from living a joyful life.
Some common examples of things we feel guilty about:
Being a full-time working mom – guilty!
practicing self-care – guilty!
Running through the drive through after a 12 hour work day – guilty!
Splurging on something nice – guilty!
Being short with the kids – guilty!
Flushing the pet fish down the toilette as a toddler – guilty!
Some of us feel guilty for feeling guilty!
Do any of these resonate with you (ok, I’m guessing the fish one is likely a no but you get the point!)
No matter the offense you don’t deserve deserve to wear the shackles of guilt.
Keep reading to learn how to cope with guilt and live a happier life.
WHAT IS GUILT?
Guilt is an emotional response typically after doing something wrong. When a person feels guilty there is a discrepancy between their behavior and moral code.
People may experience guilt when they do or think something that goes against how they believe things should be. It can also be felt when the behavior or situation was unintentional.
CAN GUILT BE A HELPFUL EMOTION?
While guilt is a difficult emotion to experience it can also be helpful. It’s a signal to us that our actions are out of alignment with our values, which encourages us to take positive action.
Guilt helps us repair and maintain social relationships, learn from our mistakes, and take corrective action. In this way, it’s a proactive emotion.
WHEN IS GUILT UNHEALTHY?
Guilt is unhealthy when it is excessive. It can be emotionally damaging and is associated with mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression.
It is a powerful emotion that not only impacts our psyche but can cause a host of physical symptoms.
Guilt can cause stress, which wreaks havoc on the body. Consistently high cortisol levels (the stress hormone) can put your health at risk.
Ultimately, guilt is a waste of valuable energy and keeps you stuck in the past.
WAYS TO MOVE PAST GUILT
It is crucial that you practice self-forgiveness. Feeling bad about yourself is detrimental to your well-being. It can lead to mental health issues, particularly depression.
Accept that you are human and errors in judgement are a part of life. Everyone makes poor choices from time to time.
Battering yourself only leads to suffering and self-hate, which doesn’t serve anyone or change what happened.
DON’T PUNISH YOURSELF
This is closely tied to forgiving yourself. What happened is in the past and you can’t change it. What you can change is your behavior.
Punishing yourself is totally pointless and can lead to damaging negative thoughts about yourself. A common damaging thought associated with guilt is believing you are a bad person. Your actions may have been a bad, but YOU are not bad.
Accept that you made a bad choice and move on.
ACCEPT THAT THE PAST CAN’T BE CHANGED
No matter how much you ruminate and beat yourself up about the situation, it will not change what happened. Accept that the past is in the past.
Take responsibility for your actions, make amends if necessary, and make better choices moving forward. That is the healthy way to deal with the situation.
Guilt is a significantly destructive emotion, so it is crucial to let go.
ASK YOURSELF IMPORTANT QUESTIONS
It is important that you examine the guilt you feel. Does it even make logical sense to feel guilty? Understand that not every emotion is rational.
Once you examine the situation you might realize it doesn’t make sense to have feelings of guilt. An example of this is feeling guilty about a situation you had no control over.
Some questions you might want to ask yourself are:
Was my behavior intentional?
Does it make sense to feel guilty about what happened?
Is feeling guilty about the situation useful?
Is there a more helpful way to look at the situation?
Guilt gives us an opportunity to learn from our experiences and grow as a person. So, in that way it can be a positive and proactive emotion.
When you self-reflect, assess your actions and think about how you could have handled the situation differently. Use this assessment to make better choices in the future. Learning from your poor decisions is growth.
RECOGNIZE THE COMMON HUMANITY IN GUILT
Guilt is an emotion that happens to all of us. Beating ourselves up for a normal emotion is pointless and makes us feel bad about who we are as a person.
Recognize that no one is perfect and errors in judgment are a natural part of life.
SEEK THE HELP OF A PROFESSIONAL
There is no shame is reaching out to a professional if you can’t resolve the guilt on your own.
Guilt can lead to significant depression (and other mental health issues) so before it gets to that point consider seeking professional help. Don’t allow the big, hard feelings to fester.
A therapist might be able to help you process your emotions and accept what happened without the burden of guilt.
RECOGNIZE THAT YOU ARE NOT YOUR ACTIONS
You may have made a poor choice, but you are not your actions. What does this mean? It means that your actions were bad, but YOU are not bad. I previously stated this but it’s so powerful it’s worth saying again.
If you judge yourself and believe yourself to be a bad person you intensify the feelings of guilt, which can lead to depression (and other mental health issues). It can also lead to future bad behavior since you believe yourself to be bad.
Learn from your errors and make better future choices.
Part of being human is making mistakes. EVERYONE makes bad choices from time to time.
Be kind and gentle toward yourself. Accept that being imperfect is inevitable and release yourself from the chains of guilt.
What advice would you give a friend who made a bad decision? Would you berate them and tell them they should feel guilty forever? I’m certain the answer if no. Talk to yourself as you would a friend.
This is not meant as a reward for bad behavior. Rather, it is showing yourself that you are worthy of caring for yourself despite making a bad choice.
When you feel guilty it is common to think unhealthy thoughts about yourself. You might talk negatively to yourself and believe you are not worthy of good things. YOU ARE WORTHY despite bad behavior.
Accept what happened and get back to feeling good about yourself. Self-care will help you do that.
TAKE NOTE OF ALL THE GOOD THINGS YOU’VE DONE
This is one of the most powerful exercises you can do to combat guilt. Take an inventory of all the good things you’ve done. Write them out and carry the list around with you. It’s helpful to review the list when those guilty feelings start to arise.
This exercise will help you realize that you’ve done a lot of wonderful things! You are a good person who simply made a bad decision.
It’s healthy to celebrate yourself!
I truly hope this post was helpful. If you enjoyed it you might also like Anxiety 101: What is it and How to Cope