Guilt will never make the grade as an A-list emotion. Guilt can be one of the most difficult feelings to navigate. Part of that sinking sensation likely comes from the fact that we cannot go back in time and change whatever it is we’re feeling bad about. It’s why learning how to let go of guilt and forgive yourself can be such an important life skill to foster.
Guilt is an extremely common and often healthy force in our emotional process. In fact, guilt is a critical emotion for social relationships. For example, guilt can help to keep us on diets— that stubborn little inner voice that stops us from eating 15 Oreos in a row. It can help us know when to apologize and stop us from spending too much money—do I really need that same sweater in 5 different colors? It can even have directly positive connotations (“guilty” pleasures) that help us keep a balance and let loose once in awhile. Anyone who has been caught in an endless loop of feeling guilty can see how thick the tangled web of guilt can become.
If we do something that makes us feel guilty, that experience can serve as an important lesson that keeps us from doing it again in the future. Guilt seems to be related to empathy and can prevent us from doing something that might hurt someone else or break important societal rules. Guilt is our inner police force, but too much guilt can cloud your thoughts, lead you to feel significant distress, and make it hard to go through your daily activities.
Below are some tips on how to release feelings of guilt:
Address It Sooner Rather Than Later
The sooner we address what is making us feel guilty, the less time it has to weigh us down. If the guilt is legitimate, and making amends is relatively easy (apologizing for a careless or hurtful comment, or letting someone know you’re sorry you missed their birthday) then we can minimize the self-punishment phase and allow ourselves to move forward by apologizing.
Remember, No One is Perfect
Absolutely no one is perfect and we all make mistakes. Don’t engage in days, weeks or months of self-blame or battering your self-esteem because you should’ve acted differently. Once you have a better perspective, it becomes easier to find compassion for yourself.
Don’t Keep It To Yourself
Talking out your guilt or the incident that cause it with a friend, loved one, or trusted therapist can be extremely therapeutic. Once you’ve bared something that you find troubling and discover that your friend isn’t nearly as shocked as you expected, the guilt begins to drain away and you feel better.
Give Yourself A Reality Check
Make sure your guilt is actually legitimate and not coming from a standard or expectation placed on your earlier in life, or even over something that isn’t upsetting anyone else. Worrying about your failings as a mother because you used store bought cupcakes rather than homemade cupcakes for their birthday party when the child doesn’t even care is guilt gone wrong.
Write It Down
Write your feelings of guilt down in a journal when you’re having trouble getting past them. Write down your thoughts and feelings honestly, then ask yourself some questions, like: Do I need to hold onto these thoughts and feelings anymore? How would changing these thoughts or feelings make a difference in my life? How is guilt holding me back? Once you’ve done this, write down some new goals and affirmations to think of in place of the negative ones weighing you down. Re-framing your thoughts will lead to a more fulfilling life.
Move a Little
Did you know, working out is like hitting the reset button on your brain? Believe it or not, it is very difficult to exercise and feel guilty at the same time. And while this might not feel like a permanent fix, it is definitely helpful for those more minor guilty feelings, like making a joke at a party that you wish you hadn’t.
Remember Your Self-Preservation Matters
Always remember that your self-preservation matters. Maybe you couldn’t make it to your friend’s party because you were just too swamped that week, or skipped that morning workout because you were up all night with a sick baby, or you couldn’t make it to a friends wedding because the airline tickets were just too expensive. You are entitled to look out for yourself just as much as anyone else, and sometimes that means saying no or disappointing others. Remind yourself that your actions are valid, and don’t let others guilt-trip you into believing otherwise.
While guilt can often help us learn a valuable lesson, other times it weighs on us way longer than it should, affecting our self-esteem and our ability to move on. If you’re having trouble letting go, try to remember that everyone has been there and no one is perfect, and you need to find what works best for you to let those feelings go.