What do you feel guilty about?
Do you always feel wrong, or that you are not doing the right thing, or apologising to someone for something?
Or do you feel like you cannot forgive yourself for something you did in the past?
Guilt is one of those emotions that we feel is telling us something important. Be aware that not every emotion and not every guilty feeling is a rational one that has a purpose. Healthy guilt is for a specific and rational purpose – to help redirect our moral or behavioural compass and to take action to fix the problem. It is telling us that we need to do something different in order to repair relationships that are important to us. Unhealthy guilt, on the other hand, serves no rational purpose and makes us feel bad for no legitimate reason. It is important to ask yourself whether the guilt you feel is trying to teach you something rational and helpful about your behaviour, or is it just an emotional, irrational response to a situation? The answer to that question will be your first step to helping you better cope with guilt in the future.
Learning from the past can help you to move forward. Lingering in the past will only hold you back. The easiest way to determine if your past is getting in the way of your future is to examine the level of emotional energy you experience when you think about that time in your life. If you are still actively experiencing all those emotions, there is a good chance that they are still holding you back and preventing you from moving forward in your life. As children we are manipulated through guilt into good behaviour. Religion also uses guilt to keep people in line, often making them feel guilty especially when they are young. As adults it is up to us to decide what we want to believe. The child in us feels guilty, but there is also an adult in us who can teach the child otherwise based on the wisdom, experience and knowledge we have gained.
If you linger in the past, it will hold you back and become a barrier to happiness. For most of us the past contains a series of ups and downs, but it doesn’t have to define who you are today and hold you prisoner. For some people they make a decision based on recognition to let go of past guilt, for others it may be more complicated and require the support of a therapist. Chronic patterns of guilt and self-criticism raise the body’s stress levels and weaken the immune system. For every thought and for every feeling there is a physiological reaction. Your “fight/flight/freeze” responses stay aroused, causing a physiological imbalance and this makes it impossible to enjoy feelings of peace and relaxation. Guilt becomes a heavy burden and makes you feel inferior. Guilt always looks for punishment so we literally become our own judge, jury and executor. We punish ourselves with mental or emotional suffering or torment. Guilt is wasted energy because it doesn’t help what happened in the past and it doesn’t help you now in any way. Each time a guilty thought comes up say something like “No I don’t want to feel that anymore. I’m willing to forgive myself for past mistakes.”
If you did something wrong or hurtful, you will have to accept that you cannot change the past. Realise that we learn from all our experiences whether good or bad. If you do something that you are sorry about, stop doing it. If you did something in the past that you still feel guilty about, forgive yourself. If you can make amends, do it, and don’t repeat the action again. If you hurt someone say you’re sorry and don’t hurt the person anymore. Apologise or make-up for the inappropriate behaviour in a timely manner, then let it go. The more you focus on believing you need to do something more, the more it will continue to bother you and interfere with your relationships with others.
Many times people give you negative messages because it is the easiest way to manipulate you. Guilt makes us feel inferior and “not good enough.” If someone is trying to make you feel guilty, ask yourself “What do they want? Why are they doing this?” Realise that you do not have to play their games anymore. When people see that manipulating you doesn’t work, they will stop doing it. People will only control you as long as you allow them to.
We can learn to use our thoughts in productive ways. In identifying negative thought patters ask yourself “What repetitive thought patterns do I have that create unhealthy guilt within me? What am I doing to contribute to my feelings of guilt?”
Nobody is perfect, even our friends or family members who appear to lead perfect, guilt-free lives. We all make mistakes and many of us go down a path in our lives that can make us feel guilty later on when we finally realise our mistake. The key, however, is to realise the mistake and accept that you’re only human. Don’t engage in days, weeks or months of self-blame because you should’ve known, should’ve acted differently, or should’ve been an ideal person. You’re not, and neither am I. Sometimes we have to give ourselves what we wish we could get from others.