Guilt is the feeling we have when we feel bad about something we’ve done or said. It’s a foreboding feeling that hangs over us like a cloud and doesn’t go away. There is a heaviness to it. We dwell on the feeling. When something good happens to us, we tend to feel even worse. We tell ourselves that we don’t deserve happiness. Depending on the person and the situation, guilt can exist in us as a small nagging feeling of negativity, or it can be crippling.
Many of us live with guilt, and it puts a damper on our lives. Why do we feel guilt? What causes it? How do we stop feeling guilty once that dark cloud has settled over us? This article will navigate through this tricky topic. We will explore guilt and some of the reasons it affects people so heavily, present ways to get out from under the weight of guilt and how to stop feeling guilty.
What Causes Guilty Feelings?
Guilt doesn’t discriminate. It attaches itself to us over things big and small. We develop guilty feelings when we know we did something wrong. It makes life feel heavy. It makes us feel small. It is a feeling of darkness that settles over our emotions and can affect our actions, outlook, and ability to navigate life with a clear head and hope for the future.
But why do we feel guilty at all? Everyone makes mistakes. No one is perfect. So why do we feel so crummy when we hurt someone’s feelings, or tell a lie, or take advantage of a person or situation for our own benefit?
The moral compass that resides within each of us varies from person to person. Some people have a looser set of morals than others. Some have a rigid set of morals that has no gray areas. No matter what your moral compass looks like, if you’re human, you most likely have one, and when you do or say something that goes against these values and expectations for yourself, it makes you feel bad.
It makes you feel guilty. You expected better of yourself. Your peers expected better of you. Guilt exists to make us aware that we have done wrong and strayed from our moral compass. Guilt exists to keep us in check and make us work for good relationships and lives.
If humans never felt guilty, then all bets would be off. We could do all sorts of things that we know are wrong and hurtful to ourselves and each other, and because we didn’t feel the negative impact of guilt, there would be no motivation to correct our wrongs or stop committing them. Guilt exists to keep us on the right path.
The Effects of Guilt
So we did something wrong, and now we feel guilty. We can try to push that feeling of shame and negativity to the very back of our mind and move on without dealing with it, but it will still pop up, no matter how hard we try to ignore it.
The effects of guilt can damage our relationship with others and with ourselves. It can have a large impact on our lives, and in some cases, completely take over and consume us.
The Effects of Our Guilt on Others
When we feel guilty, we can’t give ourselves fully to any other task. We may avoid other people because we aren’t happy. We may isolate ourselves to the point that we make our friends and family suspect that they must have done something wrong. This can, in turn, drive the people we care about away from us.
Guilt can make us treat others poorly, as well. When we feel bad, we project that feeling through our words and actions. We’re no longer as cheerful or enthusiastic as we used to be, and the people who have to be around us are subjected to it. We bring down the mood of our environment when we live with guilt.
The Internal Effects of Guilt
Depending on the level of guilt you’re living with, the effects of guilt can range and fluctuate. No one can escape the consequences of living with a guilty conscience. We may be able to push the feeling aside for short periods of time but never entirely, and never indefinitely.
Living with guilt can push us into a depression. It can lead to anxiety. We may worry that if we don’t correct the wrongs we feel bad about, we may never be able to make friends or be happy, and we worry constantly. We may convince ourselves that because we feel guilty, we don’t deserve happiness.
Instead of fixing the issue and getting rid of the guilt, we may decide that we deserve to feel bad, and we invite more negative feelings when we dwell on the negativity we think we deserve. Guilt can damage our mental health and leave us in a dark place where we see no way out.
How to Stop Feeling Guilty
Unfortunately, there’s no simple trick to alleviating guilt. It’s a process that isn’t fun, and it forces us to face things that can cause us to feel uncomfortable. When presented with this daunting task, we need to remind ourselves that guilt damages us and everyone around us.
We aren’t at our best when we’re living with regret. The following will illustrate a process we can employ to rid ourselves of the guilt we feel so that we can live better, healthier lives.
1. Identify the Problem
What is it that caused the guilt in the first place? Was it something that you said or did? Something that you didn’t say or do? Reflection is called for first if we want to rid ourselves of the guilt that is dragging us down.
Sometimes pinpointing the cause of our guilt can be difficult. Sometimes it isn’t one action or thing we said, but rather an entire situation in which we reacted poorly, avoided something altogether, or were insensitive toward. In these cases, consider the whole situation the problem.
2. Face the Issue
Here is the part of the process that can get really uncomfortable. A lot of people quit at this stage because they already feel bad and don’t want to feel worse having to face the issue head-on.
Just remind yourself that you’ve already done the work of identifying the problem, and seeing the rest of the process through will lift so much weight off of your psyche and improve your mental health, attitude, and relationship with yourself and with others. Bravery is called for in this step. Give yourself some grace and go into it with the hope that you can start to heal once you face this.
You’ve identified the problem. Now it’s time to face it head-on. Run through the interaction or deed you feel guilty about and ask yourself what you could have or should have done instead. Ask yourself why you didn’t react the way you should have.
Ask yourself if your reaction was way out of line or if you reacted in a way that most people probably would. Be honest with yourself. Try not to be too lenient with yourself, but also try not to be too critical. No one is perfect, and we cannot expect ourselves to react appropriately to every single thing that happens in life.
3. Make Amends
Once we have identified the issue and have reflected on it, it’s time to make amends. This is an act that renders us vulnerable, and it can be scary. It is important to remember that most people want to make up, forgive, and move on.
No one wants to be miserable. Taking that first step towards making amends gets the ball rolling towards getting over the problem and getting rid of the guilt.
If we hurt someone, we need to apologize. Reach out to the person you offended or hurt and tell them that you are sorry. Tell them that you feel guilt over the interaction. Try not to make it a blanket apology. Tell the person or people exactly what you are sorry for.
Be honest, and convey that the thing you said or did is not who you are deep down, and you regret showing a side of yourself that is not reflective of your true character. Let them know that you value them and that their pain gives you discomfort.
Ask for forgiveness. Don’t shift the blame to the person you are apologizing to, and don’t downplay their feelings. Give them a chance to tell you how what you did or said made them feel and what they expect of you.
When we extend an apology and ask for forgiveness, we offer ourselves up to the mercy of another person. When we are granted forgiveness for a transgression, the weight that lifts from our minds and hearts can be enormous. After completing this step, we have almost completed the process of shedding the guilt from our lives.
5. Forgive Yourself
Sometimes we still feel guilty even when someone has accepted our apology. This is because we still haven’t forgiven ourselves. Here’s where we need to cut ourselves a little slack and assure ourselves that we are better than our actions or words were and we can do better in the future.
Forgiving yourself is a huge undertaking, but sometimes it can make all the difference to free ourselves from the guilt that plagues us.
6. Commit to Doing Better
You’ve gone through this process to the point that you’ve been granted forgiveness from the offended party, and you have forgiven yourself. Now what?
Now it’s time to commit to doing better in the future. Reset your standards. Learn from your wrongdoings and understand that what you did was not okay, but you have learned what you should have done instead, if ever put in a similar situation.
Promise yourself and others that you will do better next time and that you will live up to the standards that society and your personal moral compass hold you to.
Moving Past Guilt
To move on and live a happier life, free of the guilt we sometimes carry around for far too long, we need a fresh mindset and perspective.
It’s waking up each morning and telling ourselves that we are going to enjoy ourselves, live our best lives, and treat others the way that we want to be treated.
A change in our habits may be called for, as well. A few things that can help us to move beyond a life of guilt are setting goals for ourselves and living a life of hope.
It’s essential to have goals. Everyone should have something they want to work towards. Setting a goal after guilt leads to a healthier and happier you.
Tell yourself that you now know how to react or behave in a situation that previously made you feel guilty and will do better the next time. Decide to be more kind and charitable of your time, words, and actions.
Setting a goal for yourself helps you to accept and move past the guilt that you felt. It also reminds you that you get a new chance to work towards being a better person, friend, partner, employee, or student every day. We can and should better ourselves, and goals help to turn the idea of a better tomorrow into a plan for today.
Living with Hope
Believing in yourself and having confidence that you are more than your wrongdoings can reset your outlook on life and set you on a path of guilt-free living. We owe it to ourselves to achieve inner peace and peace with those in our lives.
Hope helps us to get there. We can replace the feelings of guilt and believe that we can be better. We can have better relationships with our friends and family and accept that people make mistakes, and we are only human.
In extreme circumstances, after identifying and facing the problem, making amends, and setting goals, we still don’t feel better. In these cases, it may be best to consult with a professional. Take advantage of the resources that a counselor or therapist can offer and seek help.
Maybe there are underlying traumas, mood disorders, or emotional issues that need to be addressed. Working with and speaking to a compassionate counselor is a great way to get on the right track when the things we try on our own still don’t make us feel better. There is hope in every situation, and a professional can help you to see that hope and believe you can attain it.