How to Stop Feeling Guilty
Do you suffer from guilt?
Is feeling guilty a barrier to happiness for you?
Is guilt keeping you from doing the things you know you’re capable of?
You’re not alone! You probably know that lots of people struggle with feeling guilty. Some just take note of their feelings and get on with their lives, but other people’s guilt truly keeps them from living up to their potential for happiness, for rich relationships, for leadership potential, for financial success.
The Bad News and the Good News About Guilt
Guilt can be a useful emotion. It can guide you away from selfish or destructive behaviors. It can cue you to feel compassion or empathy. It can remind you of your principles. But the bad newsis that feeling guilty too much or too often can rob you of your health, your joy, your boldness.
The good news is that there are ways to deal with guilt … to decrease its negative effects and let it counsel you without crippling you.
Dr. Susan Kraus Whitbourne identified five types of guilt in Psychology Today:
- Guilt for something you did
- Guilt for something you didn’t do, but want to
- Guilt for something you think you did
- Guilt that you didn’t do enough
- Guilt that you’re going better than someone else
She explains that “it’s appropriate to feel guilty when you’ve done something wrong. Feeling the emotion of guilt for an action deserving of remorse is normal; to not feel guilty, in these cases, may be a sign of psychopathy. The problems occur when you ruminate over this guilt. An action in the past cannot be changed, no matter how much you wish it would. Accept the fact that this happened, apologize to the person or persons you harmed, and then figure out how to avoid committing the same act in the future. If you’ve violated your own personal standards (such as through overuse of alcohol or cheating on your partner), you can best avoid straying in the future by seeking support from others who can help you rid yourself of this habit or help you to keep on the up and up. Finally, because of our natural tendency toward egocentrism, we assume that others place far more importance on our thoughts and actions than they actually do. The behavior over which you are tormented by guilt, such as inadvertently insulting a friend, may hardly have even penetrated that friend’s consciousness.”
How to Stop Feeling Guilty
The truth is, you shouldn’t try to completely stop feeling guilty. Some guilt is useful – it’s a sign that you’re alive and that you care. When your guilt prevents you from living a rich, full life you need to find ways to moderate it. Health.com offers a few simple things you can do to help yourself stop feeling guilty:
- Identify your guilt triggers
- Pause and recognize that you have guilt coming on
- Note any patterns or common themes in what causes you guilt
- Change your perspective
- Examine what you’re feeling guilty about and why
- Consider it from different points of view
- Shake off the small stuff
- Reframe your guilt – stay practical about the causes
- Laugh it off
- Find silver linings
Unconditional Positive Regard
Those are practical suggestions, but I’ve found that one of the most powerful tools to overcome feeling guilty comes from your social group. It’s critical to be able to share your challenges with your peers or mentors. You can get objective feedback, which is helpful, but what seems to have the most powerful effect over the long haul is what psychologist Carl Rogers called “unconditional positive regard.” That means supporting you by caring deeply for you, not in a possessive way, but supporting you as a separate person, giving you complete permission to have your own experiences and feelings.
In Psychology: Eighth Edition in Modules, David G. Meyers wrote: "People … nurture our growth by being accepting – by offering us what Rogers called unconditional positive regard. This is an attitude of grace, an attitude that values us even knowing our ailings. It is a profound relief to drop our pretenses, confess our worst feelings, and discover that we are still accepted. In a good marriage, a close family, or an intimate friendship, we are free to be spontaneous without fearing the loss of others' esteem."
One of the many reasons I created Permission – The Event was to give people a chance to spend a day in unconditional positive regard – to enjoy support, praise, guidance and warmth from an entire audience of like-minded people. Outside, there are so many negative influences that a day like this can be life changing for some people! If that sounds like something you’d like to try, read more about it here.
Whatever you do, if you wonder what you can do to stop feeling guilty, I urge you to ask whether the people around you are fully supporting you. If not, make it clear to them what you want. If they’re unable or unwilling to give you overwhelming support, energy and encouragement, it may be time to get a new group of friends or mentors.
Whatever happens in your life, I wish you every success!