Guilt is a persistent negative or uncomfortable feeling of remorse that can be in the form of shame, frustration, anxiety, and humiliation. What might make guilt problematic is our approach towards it. A majority of people tend to either run away or bury it amongst themselves. Here, we will focus on learning the 4 steps to effectively overcome guilt.
While research suggests that not dealing with guilt could lead to physical as well as psychological effects including but not limited to, anxiety, depression, loss of appetite, and/or insomnia.
However, it’s important to understand that guilt doesn’t always lead to harmful effects. Sometimes this feeling of guilt can act as a motivation for the change needed.
Guilt does not only arise based on personal experiences, researchers also identified a feeling called false guilt. It is a tendency to feel guilt when in fact you haven’t done anything wrong. The expectations or the standards which we set are often characterized as slightly unrealistic, such that they focus more on thoughts rather than action, and thus create additional pressure leading to feelings of guilt. For example, a person might feel guilty about having enough to eat knowing that a vast majority of people sleep hungry daily.
Furthermore, survivor’s guilt is another guilt which might lead to grave trauma and mental health issues. This occurs when individuals survive a distressing event, while their loved ones and others couldn’t.
But what makes guilt persistent?
The answer is simple, guilt is based on violation of external as well as internal set standards. Hence, when a behaviour involves contradiction amongst set values, principles, and morals then feeling of guilt becomes more persistent. These standards are often built from personal experience, beliefs, societal norms, media, ethics, as well as peers and family’s influence. Therefore, it can be said that feelings of guilt are unique for each individual, even when they faced a similar distressing experience.
In cases when mistakes cannot be corrected, guilt often becomes more persistent until the person finds an opportunity to make amends.
4 steps to effectively overcome guilt are:
- Face your guilt
The first step toward overcoming your guilt is to face it head-on. Here, you can begin with addressing your guilt and introspecting it to seek clarity. You can face your feelings by introspecting yourself or discussing with a friend and/or a specialist. You can ask the following questions while introspecting:
- What have I done to experience this feeling of guilt?
- What should or shouldn’t have I done in that situation?
- What are the facts associated with this guilt?
- What led to that situation or why did I do that?
- Whom did I hurt?
- What are the consequences of your action which lead to feeling of guilt?
- Is my guilt trying to teach me something or is it just an irrational reaction to a situation?
- Is my guilt based on my expectations or other’s expectations?
Introspecting on these questions can help to understand if the guilt was reasonable or was it an exaggeration.
Furthermore, accepting your actions, and taking responsibility is a necessary step before moving to the next one. You can start with accepting the situation without blaming anyone else. Try repeating the sentence, “I accept what I did and I will work on it”.
- Use guilt to make changes
The next step is to create solutions, here you can try to shift your focus from past to present and the future. Hence, if you had a fight with your friend and feel guilty about your behavior, then you can begin by asking yourself, “what can you do now in order to improve this situation?”.
You can also learn from your past actions which had escalated your feelings of guilt. And thereby, make a plan for the future by asking yourself:
- What were the behaviors and/or circumstances which led to the feeling of guilt?
- How can I prepare myself for a similar situation in the future?.
- Work on healing
Guilt can lead to a multitude of unfavourable experiences. And while we cannot change the past, we can work on healing ourselves and others to healthily recover. A few following techniques and strategies you can follow to work on this healing are:
- Talk it out with a friend: A good and genuine conversation with a friend can help to lessen the feeling of guilt. This can even give a fresh perspective towards your guilt.
- Building a healthy ritual: A healthy ritual can be a specific meaningful activity that you do for yourself or for someone you had caused discomfort. Usually apologizing genuinely works, but you can also use different approaches such as writing a letter or by just being kind towards others.
- Work on your inner critic: This involves identifying any negative thoughts and rephrasing them with alternative positive ones. For example, “It’s always my fault” can be rephrased as “I am at fault here, but everyone makes mistakes and I can rectify my mistake”.
- Use meditation: Meditation strengthens the ability to focus on your present, while simultaneously releasing accumulated stress in the body. You may start with a simple breathing meditation, where you close your eyes and focus on your breathing for a short while. Click here to learn effective meditation techniques.
- Recognize that no one is perfect
Everyone in their life has experienced the feeling of guilt at least one time. Understanding this might help in normalizing the feeling of guilt that you are experiencing. This again helps to carry out the three previous steps: facing the guilt, making changes, and healing by healthily working on yourself.
To better understand this, try to think about someone you idolize, they can be an actor, YouTuber, or a sportsperson, and read about their past experiences, the mistakes they’ve made, the guilt they carry, and the learnings they’ve had. And remind yourself that it’s okay to make mistakes and experience the feeling of guilt in life, as long as you healthily cope with it.