Feeling guilty is awful, but what can you do about it? Here, an expert helps us to navigate and overcome this difficult emotion.
No-one deserves to feel guilty all the time. Whatever the cause, none of us deserve the daily punishment of dealing with longstanding guilt. So, what can we do about it?
The first step is understanding guilt better and then finding ways to move on.
First things first! Guilt is a horrible feeling; it weighs you down and affects everything. When it’s bad, you can’t imagine how you will ever be free of it. It can affect how you live your life, and how you act. For example, guilt might make you liable to ‘overplease’ others and not stand up for yourself when you should. When someone says they are a ’people pleaser’, generally it means that they are carrying guilt they can’t put down. Sometimes, without realising it, people do something bad so that they have something to feel guilty about. Then, somehow, they can imagine once they’ve had their punishment, they’ll feel better. But this doesn’t work.
Being told to just ‘let it go’ does not help either. So, what can we do that works? First, you have to accept the feeling inside yourself and acknowledge that you are not perfect, you are not someone who doesn’t make mistakes – you are human and you are good enough. With that in mind, it’s MUCH easier to take in good advice.
So, let’s get down to how to deal with feeling guilty and stop carrying negative feelings around with you…
9 ways to let go of guilt for good
1. Sit down and think hard to work out what you feel guilty about. Writing it down may help.
2. Find someone you can trust but who does not have a direct stake in what has happened or lives too close to it or to you. (However much someone loves you and wants to help, if they have an interest of their own, they may not be able to help you see things clearly. Plus, it would be harder for you to hear what they say with an open mind.) Then, you need to talk it through with the person; the purpose is not to get advice but to get perspective. Is what you think happened what really happened? If it is, was it so bad? And if you have done something wrong, what can you do to try and put it right?
3. Once you’ve worked out what you feel guilty about and what you might do to put it right, you have to be brave. Say sorry properly and try and make amends. That’s actually all that is required of a person, and all you can do.
4. Don’t put pressure on the person you are apologising to for them to say it’s alright or to forgive you. It really helps if you don’t place too much importance on being forgiven, the problem is that you have to forgive yourself.
5. This is an important point and one many people struggle with: You don’t owe an apology to someone who is no longer around. If the person has passed away, why would they want you to continue to feel bad?
6. You don’t need to feel guilty about your thoughts. Actually, we can’t help having bad thoughts so there is nothing to beat yourself up about. In fact, you should ber pleased with yourself that you don’t act on them.
7. Think about the people around you and how you might feel guilty in relation to them. Sometimes people try and make someone feel guilty in order to have some control over them. Parents who do not want to seem harsh or to punish a child may instead try and make them feel guilty – “Look how you have upset us by what you’ve done!” they say. They do not mean to give their child chronic guilt for the rest of their lives, but that is often the effect. So, if someone makes you feel guilty, it’s probably saying more about them than about you.
8. Take a step back – actions driven by guilt don’t make things better for anyone. You have to unhook yourself from the situation and not act on it. Try and remember that it’s probably either exaggerated in your mind or not really true at all.
9. Now you know what to do about feeling guilty, it’s time to practice thinking differently. Remember and repeat: you don’t deserve to feel guilty all the time…you deserve to be happy!
Dr Jan McGregor Hepburn is a Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist and part of the team at nscience.uk. Her new book, Shame & Guilt, is published by nscience Publishing.