Guilt is an uncomfortable awareness that something we have done isn’t right. Initially guilt can be empowering, as it can prompt us to acknowledge where we could have done better, to apologize or to put things right.
Holding onto guilt and not acting upon the awareness of it, becomes negative. It is a way of staying stuck that dis-empowers and demotivates people. This is when for whatever reason they don’t act appropriately and are feeling continually bad about it, or are unable to move forwards easily.
Long term guilt, left untreated, can morph into shame and causes stress and over-reactivity. It robs our peace of mind and can damage relationships and our sense of freedom and self-trust.
Here are six ways you can look to tackle guilt for yourself.
1.Take Responsibility and seek transformation
You have several options when guilt is plaguing/bothering you. Say how you feel and do your best to make amends if you can. Find a way to deal with your feelings, by learning from what happened, letting it go and moving on.
Taking self-responsibility will offer us some self-mastery in the future and the opportunity to transform our past wounds into wisdom.
When making amends, we must be mature enough to realize there are no guarantees how we will be received and therefore we must be unattached to the outcome. It is about an opportunity to contribute if the other person will allow us, it’s not about seeking absolution for ourselves.
It may also help, to look accurately at what was ours and what was someone else’s. Many times people have trouble understanding who was responsible for what, in a stressful or difficult situation leading to blame and confusion.
2. Understand your Individual triggers and how to move forwards with self-kindness
How we process and let go of guilt is going to differ from person to person.
Some people need to forgive themselves for doing what they think is the ‘wrong’ thing. Maybe they didn’t understand they were being hurtful, or were acting as they were taught, without knowing there was a different way. Maybe they were triggered, acted out of anger or hurt and felt justified in doing so at the time.
Other people will need to hear “It’s okay” from someone else, before they feel they have closure. Whilst you can never expect this and it is no substitute for carrying out our own inner work, sometimes it happens with a good outcome.
What is empowering, is learning from our past choices. Then having kindness towards ourselves as we integrate this information and move forwards a better version of ourselves.
Understand the difference between what we did that wasn’t in accordance with our own integrity and what society or others says we should feel guilty about, which are often two different things.
We may hold ourselves to a higher standard than popular belief, or we may have a view of life which is just different. As long as our beliefs don’t cause harm to others, that is alright.
3. Getting Honest allows for growth and development
In dealing with any underlying guilt, there should be humility and willingness to see where we made poor choices.
What were we thinking at the time? How did the outcome harm someone else whether we intended that or not? What could we have done differently or better to affect another outcome? How would we better handle such a scenario, knowing what we know now?
This creates self-awareness of our patterns and the ability to make informed choices in the future.
It’s not what others think of us that matters, it’s what we think.
Did you do the best you could at the time? What stopped you from taking responsibility? Did you? What are your beliefs that didn’t serve you and what can you replace them with now? How much of your guilt is conditioned and can you let go of it, just by acknowledging this?
People often say they feel guilty as a tool for getting people off their back as it stops people pointing the finger at them. Honesty is critical to truly learn from the past.
4. Make a decision to let go and forgive yourself
You can read about self forgiveness and healing here. We don’t have to feel guilty forever about things. Unfortunately, good people often take responsibility and feel badly where they shouldn’t.
For example, parents rescue their adult children because they feel guilty for their marriage breakup, or because they feel they failed their child in some way.
Another example is when someone dies in a car wreck. Afterwards their spouse continues to feel guilty that they didn’t stop them leaving the house that day, or that their last words they spoke weren’t kind or loving.
In actual fact, they were just being human and the spouse would totally understand. That’s not to say, that the surviving spouse wouldn’t do things differently in future relationships. However, there is just no point beating themselves up over things they can’t control.
There may also be an element of self-flagellation to avoid blame and judgment by third parties. People often think if they are unkind to themselves, others will leave them alone.
Clarity is very helpful here and having a therapist, counsellor or coach who is great with grief issues can be such a support. This can enable us to heal where we are hurting from things we couldn’t control, or where we didn’t know any better and are still blaming ourselves.
5. Develop some skills and self-mastery
When we hang onto guilt, we either don’t know it’s okay to move on, how to move on, or we are conditioned that what we have decided about ourselves is true and think we must undergo a lifetime of penance to make up for it in some way.
None of this is true or needs to be the case.
What’s going to empower us in the future is being able to understand our own behaviour, making peace with the past, seeing our own motives clearly and knowing how to use those experiences to be different in the future.
Some of this work may involve changing unhelpful beliefs we are carrying about blaming us. Along with working through past traumas or conflicts, becoming aware of our triggers and choosing differently.
It’s about learning what we didn’t know the first time around and processing any unhelpful regret or emotions we may be carrying and getting free again.
6. Changing beliefs through awareness
The best way of getting guilt free, is liberating ourselves from unhelpful beliefs which are causing us to feel permanently shameful or uncomfortable about something.
Our beliefs come in a complex web, that is entangled with how we were taught to think about life, mixed with our own personality and experiences, through which we filter everything. Getting past this can be very hard, without someone to assist us.
For example, let’s say I feel guilty about recently ejecting someone from my life who had recently become manipulative, negative and draining.
I could have become guilty, fearing that they won’t cope, they might be hurt, or not understand why and they could become resentful.
As a person with healthy beliefs, I would check in with myself to see if I felt guilty for anything and would realize had every right to enter into a friendship and opt out again, as I outgrow it.
I am not responsible for another person’s reaction. We don’t need to justify ourselves to anyone or explain, even if the other person can’t receive it.
Where this would be messy, could be if I had the belief I can’t handle others being upset with me. Or, if I need to help everyone who isn’t doing so well, even when it is exhausting. These beliefs, steeped in guilt (if I held them), would turn into a long term, emotional burden. Fortunately this is a hypothetical scenario and I don’t feel this way.
If you are feeling guilty and it’s been bothering you for a while, you have options. You can do a combination of internal and external things to change and progress. Although you can’t undo what has taken place, you can learn from it and be better in the future.
Making these type of changes takes courage and deserves acknowledgment. It isn’t easy, but it is possible.
If you would like to change your beliefs causing your guilt, contact me here.