Guilt is something that nearly all of us struggle with at one time or another. Sometimes in small ways – but other times, feelings of guilt can be so strong that they can become debilitating.
There are endless reasons why we can feel guilty about something. For example, you might feel bad that you can’t spend more time with your family because of your work. Or perhaps there have been times when you haven’t treated someone very fairly and wish you’d handled things differently.
Though guilt can be a useful emotion because it helps to keep our moral compass in check, it can also be a difficult burden to carry – one that can gnaw away at us and drag us down if left unmanaged. It’s not uncommon for people suffering from intense guilt to isolate themselves, turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms, or act angrily or irrationally.
So what exactly is guilt and how can we deal with it?
What Is Guilt?
Guilt is a natural, self-focussed emotion that we tend to feel when we’ve failed to meet a particular standard. This standard could be self-imposed, such as not being true to our values or beliefs – or one that is more widely recognised by society, such as calling to work sick when you aren’t actually ill and leaving someone else to cover your work.
When we feel guilty, we tend to get an uncomfortable gut feeling that we’ve done something wrong. This feeling may also be accompanied by regret that we didn’t act differently.
Some guilt can be considered ‘healthy’, which usually means that it’s rational and proportionate to the way we’ve acted. Its purpose is to encourage us to repair mistakes that we’ve made and discourage us from making the same mistakes in future.
For example, you might feel guilty that you were rude to a friend when you were in a bad mood, which could lead you to apologise and make an effort to find a healthy outlet for your bad mood next time to prevent this from happening again.
There are also forms of guilt that can be considered ‘unhealthy’. Usually, this is guilt that’s misplaced, irrational, or disproportionate. An example of this is feeling guilty that you’re healthy, happy, and doing well when someone else is suffering – even though you have no control over their situation.
Sometimes healthy guilt and unhealthy guilt also overlap. Some people feel guilty about completely reasonable things, but they find that the size of the guilt and the length of time they feel guilty for becomes unhealthy and irrational.
4 Tips for Coping with Guilt
At some point – whether our guilt is healthy or unhealthy – we need to learn to let it go if we want to move forward with our lives.
Luckily, there are some things we can do to help with this…
Identify Whether Your Guilt Is Appropriate
The first and most important thing to do is identify what you feel guilty about, and whether the guilt you’re feeling is an appropriate response. To help make things a little clearer, it can help to write these points down.
If you feel guilty because you’ve been hurtful or offensive to yourself or someone else, then this is usually a sign that you have some amends to make and some behaviour to be changed. So, rather than wallowing in guilt, making these changes can become your next mission and focus.
If you find that there are no amends you can make or changes to be made, then it’s likely that your guilt is misplaced or disproportionate.
This could apply to someone who has recently made a big and exciting decision in their lives, such as deciding to go on a mid-life gap year or change careers but is experiencing disapproval from others. This person’s guilt will likely come from choosing to live by their own standards and beliefs rather than someone else’s, and feeling as though they are letting others down as a result.
If this sort of scenario sounds familiar, it can be helpful to remind yourself that you can’t please everyone – and to make a conscious decision to work on letting your guilt go, so it doesn’t detract from your happiness.
Affirmations can be helpful here. Try saying or writing down, “I have nothing to feel guilty for. I’m a good person.” This might feel difficult at first, but science tells us that with practice and perseverance, we can start to believe it.
Make Amends, Learn from Your Mistakes, and Change Your Behaviour
If you decide that your guilt is rational, then it’s important to start thinking about what you can do to improve the situation.
For those of us who struggle not to let guilt consume them, this step can be particularly helpful – as it can give us something else to focus on other than how bad we feel.
If you can, try to write down two or three realistic actions that can help you to make up for your mistake.
Perhaps you could write an apology letter to the person you hurt (even if that person is you!) and equip yourself with some alternative options for next time, to avoid hurting them again.
For example, if your problem is that you tend to speak or act very quickly without thinking, then it might help to work on slowing down your thought processes with some deep breathing exercises.
Remember That No One Is Perfect – and Mistakes Are Going to Happen
Sometimes, making amends and changes to your behaviour might not be enough to help you let go or lessen the guilt you’re feeling.
When this happens, it can also be useful to remind yourself that you’re human and every single person makes mistakes, regardless of how perfect their lives seem. While we might not make the same mistake twice, it’s inevitable that – as hard as we try not to – we will still make new mistakes, so it’s important to accept mistakes and guilt as an inevitable part of life.
We also can’t change what’s already happened, but we can continue learning and growing and become even better versions of ourselves.
Guilt is there to teach us lessons and help us be better people; not to cripple us and leave us stuck in the past. So, rather than losing yourself to days, weeks, or months of self-blame about what you should have done or what kind of person you are; try to focus on what kind of person you want to be tomorrow and how you can get there.
Forgive Yourself and Let Go
Showing yourself self-compassion and learning to forgive yourself is an important part of moving through guilt and taking care of your mental health.
It can be tempting to think that we need to punish ourselves and deprive ourselves of happiness when we’ve made a mistake – but this won’t solve anything, nor will it make you a better person.
If you’re struggling to forgive yourself, then it can help to visualise what forgiveness might feel like. How would you feel? And what actions would you take?
Our imaginations can be powerful tools for helping us to let go of bitterness and resentment towards ourselves and others. Imagining what could be can help us to move towards making that a reality.
You might also want to consider what you would say to a good friend who was in a similar situation. Ask yourself; would you really want them to beat themselves up like this – even after they’ve made amends and committed to changing their behaviour? Would you be kind to them? Then consider why you shouldn’t treat yourself in the same way.
As Dr Kristin Neff, a psychology professor at the University of Texas, says, “When we give ourselves self-compassion, we are opening our hearts in a way that can transform our lives.”
Let’s Have a Conversation:
How do you deal with guilt? Has it ever prevented you from moving forward with your life? How did you overcome this?