Reading time: 5 minutes Feb 6th 2017

How to Stop Feeling Guilty

One of the things that I’ve been asked about lately is the notion of guilt and how to stop feeling guilty. How do you handle such an intense emotion? I know some people that say that they have felt guilty for years about something they did or didn’t do. Inevitably, there are times where we do things that we know we shouldn’t have done. In this post, I would like to explore guilt and, most importantly, how we can more effectively handle it.

Irish people seem to have a natural relationship to guilt. Often, it’s called ‘Catholic guilt’. It is based upon the idea that says we feel guilty quite easily when we perceive ourselves to have done wrong. Guilt itself is an interesting emotion. It can cause a massive amount of suffering not just in you but also the people around you. Guilt can cause you to retreat into a slump, go further down the pathway of self-sabotage or even negatively impact your relationships with others.

From an evolutionary perspective, there is quite an obvious function to guilt. It works by creating a negative motivation away from whatever behaviour the person engages in that is “not the ‘right’ thing to do”. Since there is a reason for emotions, part of handling them effectively often includes finding ways to satisfy the goal of the emotion itself. Once we do that, we need to find a way of dealing with and changing the emotion.

There are different levels of guilt. For example, murdering someone is vastly different to cheating on a test. Sleeping with someone other than your partner is different to skipping a line in the airport. People feel different intensities of the feeling. However, some people rarely feel guilt at all. Whenever people do bad things, they have a variety of mechanisms available that they can use which helps them avoid feeling guilty. With the exception of sociopaths and psychopaths whom we won’t discuss here, most people avoid guilt by ignoring the situation, compartmentalising in their mind or simple justification.

Ignoring the situation involves focusing your attention on anything except the event that you feel guilty about. Compartmentalising is a skill some people have where they can ‘lock off’ different events in their mind and ensure that each event has no effect on any other event. In other words, they can be perfectly happy just as long as they are not dealing with the ‘guilt situation’. Finally, the most common method people use to handle guilt involves the use of justification.

Justification is when we find reasons as to why it was okay to do what we did, or not do what we didn’t do. We logically find a way of thinking about it so that we can explain our behaviour and maintain our view of ourselves as good people. In relationships or, indeed, friendships, we often find ways to make ourselves feel okay about treating the other person badly. We remember every time they ever treated us badly and use this as our first defence, for example.

Of course, none of these approaches are very healthy for us long-term nor is allowing ourselves to feel massively guilty consistently. There are some people who blame themselves for everything that happens. If a relationship ends, they blame themselves. If their family is unwell, they somehow think it’s their fault. If their company isn’t succeeding as it needs to, they focus the attention on how they were in the wrong. This certainly isn’t useful.

So, what is the solution?

First, it is a good idea to start by understanding what we did wrong. Be clear with yourself as to how you behaved and why that was not right. By doing this we serve to identify the very behaviour that the guilt emotion is attempting to correct in the future.

Next, be clear in your mind as to what you should have done instead and how you should have acted. This means the next time you will be more likely to behave in a ‘better’ way.

Third, apologise to anyone affected. This could be in person if that’s appropriate. Sometimes, however, you might not get a chance to do this for whatever reason. In any event, saying that you are sorry to the person… even if you do it in an email you never send or a letter you never write, can help massively. You are actively acknowledging to someone that you did wrong and you feel bad as a result.

Next, remind yourself over what guilt is for and the pointlessness of feeling it regularly. Guilt needs to have a time limit on it. Once you have corrected the behaviour you need to move on and accept.

Lastly, forgive yourself. You sometimes will need to accept you aren’t perfect and as a flawed human you will sometimes screw up and that’s okay. Allow yourself to forgive YOU and be okay with your inadequacy or mistake. In life, we go through experiences where we aren’t as good as we’d like to be. This is just a reality. Understanding this is crucial to being able to move forward without being trapped by guilt.

I have dealt with guilt plenty in my life. I do have regrets but it is in acknowledging such regrets and allowing them to teach me something that I believe I become a better person. It is easy to blame yourself for everything. But the truth is that when things go wrong, you are only one of the factors to blame. You can take responsibility for what you did and didn’t do and experience only as much guilt as motivates you to do better the next time. After that, it is important for your sake and the sake of those around you that you move forward and forgive both other people and yourself most of all.

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  • Christine Lees

    Owen, thanks, as always, for this. It has helped me to put my own feelings of guilt into perspective.

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