It is astonishing how fast guilt can kick in for the smallest, most meaningless things in our lives. Clearly, its purpose is to let us know when we have done something wrong, to help us develop a better sense of our behavior and how it affects ourselves and others. Also, guilt encourages us to re-examine our behavior so that we do not repeat our mistakes.
I have written 5 points for consideration, in terms of how we can tolerate our guilty feelings, and accept them when they are important, but let them go less painfully when they are insignificant.
- Learn to recognize the kind of guilt you have and its purpose.
Guilt works best to help us grow and mature when our behavior has been offensive or hurtful to others or ourselves. If we feel guilty for saying something offensive to another person, or for focusing on our careers so much that it affects the relationship we have with our family, that is a warning sign with a purpose: change your behavior or else lose your friends or family. This is known as “healthy” or “appropriate” guilt because it serves a purpose in trying to help redirect our moral or behavioral compass.
The problem arises when our behavior is not something that needs reexamining, nor is it something that needs to be changed. For example, a lot of first-time moms feel badly about going back to work part-time, fearful it may cause unknown damage to their child’s normal development. That is simply not the case in most situations, and the majority of children have a normal, healthy development even when both parents work. There is nothing to feel guilty about, and yet we still do. This is known as “unhealthy” or “inappropriate” guilty because it serves no rational purpose.
Therefore, learn which one of the two guilt-types you are dealing with, so that you can go on to step 2.
2. Make amends or changes sooner rather than later.
If your guilt is for a specific and rational purpose (healthy guilt) – take action to fix the problem behavior. While many of us are gluttons for self-punishment, ongoing guilt weighs us down as we try and move forward in life. It is easy enough to apologize to someone whom we have offended by a careless remark. It is a little more challenging to not only recognize how your 80-hour-a-week career may be harming your family, but to also change your work schedule (assuming that there were legitimate reasons for working 80-hours a week in the first place).
Healthy guilt is telling us we need to do something different in order to repair relationships important to us (or our own self-esteem). (Unhealthy guilt’s purpose, on the other hand, is only to make us feel badly for little legitimate reason.) While sometimes we already know the lesson guilt is trying to teach us, it will return time and time again until we have actually learned the lesson fully. Further, it can be frustrating, but it seems to be the way guilt works for most people. The sooner we “learn the lesson”, make amends, work to not engage in the same hurtful behavior in the future, etc. – the sooner the guilt will disappear. If successful, it will never return for that issue again.
3. Accept you did something wrong, but move on.
If you did something wrong or hurtful, you will have to accept that you cannot change the past. On the other hand, you can make amends for your behavior, if and when it is appropriate. Do so, apologize, or make-up for the inappropriate behavior in a timely manner, but then let it go. The more we focus on believing we need to do something more, the more it will continue to bother us and interfere with our relationships with others.
Guilt is usually very situational. That means we get into a situation, we do something inappropriate or hurtful, and then we feel badly for a time. Either the behavior was not so bad or time passes, and we feel less guilty. If we recognize the problem behavior and take action sooner rather than later, we will feel better about things (and so will the other person) and the guilt will be alleviated. Obsessing about it, however, and not taking any type of compensatory behavior (such as apologizing, or changing one’s negative behavior) keeps the bad feelings going. Acknowledge the inappropriate behavior and make your amends, it is what it is, accept it and move on.
4. Learning from our behaviors.
The feeling of guilt is trying to get our attention so that we can learn something from the experience. If we learn from our behavior, we will be less likely to do it again in the future. If I have accidentally said something insulting to another person, my guilt is telling me I should (a) apologize to the person and (b) think a little more before I open my mouth.
If your guilt is not trying to correct an actual mistake you made in your behavior (unhealthy guilt), then there is not a whole lot you need to learn. Instead of learning how to change that behavior, a person can instead try to understand why a simple behavior most people would not feel guilty about is making one feel guilty. For instance, if someone felt guilty for spending some time playing a game during regular work hours. Since they work for themselves, however, they do not really keep “regular work hours,” but it is hard for them to change that mindset after years of working for others with “regular work hours”.
5. Know that perfection does not exist in anyone.
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 realize our mistake. The key, however, is to realize the mistake and accept that you are only human. Do not engage in days, weeks or months of self-blame or battering your self-esteem because you should have known, should have acted differently, or should’ve been an ideal person. You are not, and neither am I. That is just life.
Guilt is one of those emotions that we feel is telling us something important. Be aware that not every emotion, and certainly not every guilty feeling, is a rational one that has a purpose. Focus on the guilt that causes loved ones or friends harm. Moreover, remember to be skeptical the next time you feel guilty – is it trying to teach you something rational and helpful about your behavior, 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.
I truly hope this made you feel better or that you found it helpful. ❤
Big hugs ❤