In both my coaching practice and mentor program, guilt is a common topic. Undoubtedly, we’ve all felt it. A sinking feeling in the pit of our stomachs. A sleepless night. Perhaps when we made a mistake or let someone down. Or when we set boundaries or ruminate too deeply on the past. As an emotion, guilt holds a lot of power so let’s look at 4 ways to stop feeling guilty.
Pitfalls & Benefits of Guilt
Before we jump to the ‘how’ of 4 ways to stop feeling guilty – let’s look at ‘what’ guilt is and the impact.
Psych Central, a mental health information website describes guilt as “a self-conscious emotion that originates from a process of self-evaluation and introspection that may involve your perception of how others value you.”
So, in simpler terms…. feelings of guilt result from concrete action (either real or self-perceived) for which we take responsibility. This can make us direct our focus inward and view our entire self in a negative light.
On the flip side of that negative impact, guilt can act as a prompt to behave differently. When we act in a way we are not proud of or that leaves us with that aforementioned pit in the stomach, the brain sends a signal that prompts us to alter our conduct.
Unfortunately, rather than a guiding light to change behaviour, it is more common that guilt negatively impacts us in a variety of ways. Further, Scientific American, a popular science magazine claims that…..
“women are quicker to feel humiliated than men, and adolescents feel shame more intensely than adults do. As a result, women and adolescents are more susceptible to the negative effects of guilt, such as low self-esteem and depression.”
Identify Your Feelings
However, things aren’t always as they seem and guilt can be a mask for many other feelings. Author Nedra Glover Tawwab surmises that when we use the word guilt, we can be using it as a cover for other emotions like sadness, longing, disappointment in ourselves or even the perception that we have disappointed someone else.
A common example of this is mom-guilt. Mothers can feel guilty about time spent away from their children, but this can actually mean they are simply missing their kids or have concerns that they may need something when away from them. But, guilt is a reaction to feeling as though you’ve done something wrong. It’s not wrong to take time away from your kids so there really isn’t anything to feel guilty about.
We also see this with self-care. Taking time to nurture ourselves can leave us feeling guilty but, is it really guilt? Do we actually feel that it is wrong to take time for ourselves? Or are we grappling with external societal pressure that says we must always be productive?
These things can feel like guilt but there is a difference. When we are feeling guilty, we need to delve deeper and see what is really at the core.
Tawwab suggests asking these questions of yourself to uncover if you’re actually feeling guilty:
- Am I doing something wrong?
- Have other people identified what I’ve done as bad?
- If others have identified it as bad, why is it bad?
- Is what I’ve done against the law?
- Is what I’ve done socially unacceptable?
- Does what I’ve done take time away from someone or something else?
The answers to these questions can provide clarity as to whether the situation actually warrants action (like apologizing or changing your behaviour) or conversely, can give way to letting go of feelings that aren’t serving you. At the very least, you gain perspective to the situation.
Determining what we are really feeling allows us to reframe our experience and relieve ourselves of guilt. You can even use a feelings chart to help give language to your emotions.
4 Ways to Stop Feeling Guilty
Identifying your feelings is the first step, but on top of that here are the 4 ways to stop feeling guilty.
- Change Negative Self-Talk – Former professional athlete David James said, “Be mindful of your self-talk. It’s a conversation with the universe.” If you are holding guilt and negativity in your mind, you are taking up space that could be used for gratitude and positivity. Next time you are feeling guilty, take a moment to change your inner monologue. Shift from negative self-talk to positive language. Do this consistently and it will become habit.
- Reach Out – Lean on your trusted network of family or friends to gain perspective on guilt. They can provide clarity and guidance in seeing the situation as it truly is. Working with a coach can also help you create a plan of action to relieve guilt and perhaps most importantly, to hold you accountable until letting go becomes second nature. At the very least, reaching out can get you out of your own head and garner insight into how others see you.
- Take Action – There are times that you may have truly wronged someone and, in that case, you can take action. Apologize and make amends. And if your guilt is more generalized, write your feelings down and counteract them with positive thoughts. Write down the good things that you do to remind yourself of your accomplishments. It’s important to actively release your guilt so you can be free of it.
- Learn From Your Mistakes – Speaker Tony Robbins claims that most emotionally healthy people have the ability to find the lesson in their mistakes and failures, then they try again. Robbins says, “don’t ‘should’ all over yourself.” He suggests when you resort to “I should have done this”, you get stuck in the past. Instead, find the lesson and then don’t let it happen again. Get rid of the guilt by using it to help you grow, rather than an excuse to stay unhappy.
What About You?
We are all far from perfect. As human beings, we all make mistakes. Overcoming guilt and practicing acceptance of yourself and others is key to moving through life feeling less burdened.
When was the last time you felt guilty? When you reflect on that moment, was it actually guilt you were feeling? How can you let it go?