Guilt. A heavy word, a heavy feeling. Guilt can be an utterly debilitating experience because it often manifests in other painful emotions like anxiety, sadness, anger and disgust. Those who experience guilt may feel anxious over being caught or discovered, fear over losing loved ones as a result of their actions, sadness from feeling alone in their experience, or anger and disgust towards themselves for having done something despicable.
Guilt becomes even more complicated when it turns into shame. Shame can leave people feeling like they do not deserve care and support. Such individuals may even punish themselves by restricting themselves from receiving care, whether from others and even themselves. These forms of punishment or self-deprecation only make it more challenging to cope with guilt.
The purpose of this article is to offer a multifaceted approach at overcoming guilt. This process involves reflecting on the purpose behind your actions, showing yourself kindness and compassion regardless of your actions, paying attention to how your thought patterns may be adding to negativity, and then finding ways to practice important values and seeking support in order to welcome joy in your life.
Reflect on the purpose: I have often heard from those experiencing guilt that they find themselves wishing they could turn back time to stop them from doing what they did. “If only I had just waited 5 more minutes..” “If only we had never met..” Although it is normal to wish that things could be different, thoughts like these can further push you into a hole of helplessness over your lack of control of the past. Our emotions and current state guide our behaviours, whether consciously or unconsciously. What this means is that even though your past actions seem like a bad idea right now, it probably made sense back then given the state you happened to be in. Whether we fully grasp it or not, there is typically a purpose behind every action we take. Whether or not we agree with these actions now, it can be helpful to try to go back to the state in which a decision was made to reflect on why.
When reflecting on the purpose behind your actions, you want to ask yourself what you were feeling at the time and what need you were trying to fulfill by engaging in that action. For instance, I had a client who felt guilty over lying to her best friend. She was concerned for her friend’s safety and wellbeing when she lied to her friend. Although she knew she went against the integrity of their friendship and felt guilty about it, she realized that she did so out of her need to protect her friend. Understanding the purpose behind your actions can help you to empathize with yourself.
Compassion: In a simple sense, self-compassion means showing kindness to you. Regardless of what you did, every human being deserves kindness. Show yourself compassion by paying attention to how you speak to yourself and what words you use to describe you. Refrain from name-calling and self-punishment because these will only make you feel worse about yourself.
If a friend or loved one in your life was beating themselves up over a decision they made, what would you say to them? Speak to yourself as you would to this friend. Taking the time to show your past-self compassion is integral in learning from past mistakes, being kind towards yourself, and finding strength to move forward.
Compassion may even involve forgiving yourself as a way to move on. Although arriving at forgiveness can be difficult, doing so can help to truly let go of the burden of negative feelings that come with guilt, in order to work towards personal growth and, ultimately, joy.
Challenge unhelpful thinking: As mentioned above, engaging in “If only” thoughts or fixating on how you wish you could change the past, can lead to feelings of helplessness. It can be easy to get caught in a cycle of negativity by having such thoughts, which only serve to increase pain and suffering. The fact of the matter is you can’t change the past. Therefore, exhausting yourself with thoughts around wishing you could, is unhelpful.
Another common thought pattern that some people experiencing guilt engage in is thinking in extremes. “I did this bad thing, therefore I am bad.” Just because you did something you think is bad, doesn’t automatically make you a bad person. Good people sometimes do not-so-good things. Nobody is perfect. This doesn’t mean ignoring that you made a mistake; this means recognizing that it is OK to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes, instead of allowing your mistakes to define who are.
Practice values: Since guilt is what one feels when they believe that they have acted against their morals or values, perhaps one way to overcome guilt will be to practice what is important and in line with your values. Again, you have no control over your past actions; you do have some control over your present actions. For instance, if you feel as though your actions went against your value of honesty, find ways in the present to practice honesty. If you feel as though your actions caused pain unto someone, find ways to help and support others. The idea isn’t to replace a bad behaviour with a good behaviour, but rather to recognize that you can do good and be proud of it even though you did something bad once.
Talk to someone: In my previous article called Loneliness of Mental Illness, I talked about how loneliness can have a significant impact on those who are suffering. Guilt is one of those emotions that often leaves people feeling utterly alone. Often times, when people feel guilt, it is likely that they may feel the need to hide it due to shame they may be experiencing. Keeping secrets keeps people in a state of loneliness over not being able share their thoughts and feelings. By keeping such secrets, they miss out on their chance to receive support from others to help them ease their pain.
To counter feelings of loneliness that can come with guilt, talk to someone. Those who experience guilt often spend a long time verbally and mentally beating themselves up. A way to overcome that tendency is by talking to someone who can show you empathy and compassion, like a friend, a family member, or a counsellor. Doing so can help to break the cycle of negativity, allow you to think of your actions from a different perspective, and help you recognize the purpose behind your actions.
If this article resonates with you and you feel like it is time to break the cycle of guilt and start to forgive yourself, it may be worthwhile to seek support by speaking with a counsellor.