When guilt puts down roots in your psyche, it controls you. It affects everything you do, and every choice you make as it drives you to strive in vain to make amends for something you feel you did wrong.
And when it lasts beyond a certain point, it is absolutely crippling.
Guilt is a strange emotion. Revered as a virtue steeped in morality and responsibility, many consider guilt to be an appropriate and correct response. And, indeed—guilt is an essential part of what might be considered the human conscience, giving us a painful reminder when we deviate from what we consider appropriate behavior. The ability to reflect on past behavior and learn what doesn’t work is certainly useful.
Yet, at the same time, this habit of placing guilt on the pedestal of morality is leaving innumerable people in extreme and unnecessary emotional suffering, and preventing them from moving on with their lives.
These people do not stop at allowing guilt to be what it should be—a quick jab—and allow it to become a neverending agony, and a part of their daily lives. This affects not only them, but the people around them—guilt, paradoxically, is selfish in nature. It’s about the self punishing the self without thought for how it might make others feel.
When guilt cannot be let go, no one wins, so let’s take a look at how you can learn to stop revering guilt and just get over it.
Let Amends be the End
Unending remorse helps no one. It doesn’t help the person you’ve wronged. It doesn’t help you. It doesn’t make you look better to your deity of choice.
When you feel the first pangs of guilt, stop and think. Is your guilt even valid in the first place?
Review whatever it was you did—or didn’t do—that is the source of your guilt. Was your action or inaction actually hurtful? Or do you simply perceive it to have been hurtful? And if you don’t know, ask!
There are many common sources of guilt that simply shouldn’t be. You should never feel guilty for your own success, for example.
If you haven’t actually done anything wrong, let the guilt go. Dwell on the fact that no one has been hurt by your morally correct action, and if they are hurt, that’s their wrong decision.
But if you do find that you’ve done something hurtful, the best way to help yourself get over it is by making amends—and by letting those amends be the end. Do your best to make things right. Don’t go overboard—let your response be appropriate for the action.
And then that’s it. Accept that you’ve done your very best to make amends, and move on. The person you wronged won’t be any better off if you continue to wallow in guilt, and you are not a better person if you continue to hold onto it.
In fact, as you’re about to learn, retaining guilt hurts the people who care about you.
Think Outside Yourself
Guilt is selfish. When you hold onto it, you become closed off from the world, and from those who love you. You stop treating the person you hurt like a person, like an equal, and begin to treat them more like an angry god. Those who tend to hold on to guilt also tend to be inhibited, terrified of doing or saying something around this person that might make them feel guilty again.
If the person you hurt cares about you, this hurts them.
Guilt leaves you so inward-focused that you can have trouble seeing what’s really going on outside of the confines of your own mind. Notice the emphasis on the self—the ever-guilty focus on the fact that “I did this to you,” rather than “What can I do to make this better for you?” Thus, they fail to make the hurt party feel loved and important—a vital step toward making things right.
When you learn to think outside of yourself, even amidst the worst of guilt you’re able to take the important steps we’ve already talked about—making amends and subsequently letting go of guilt.
Obsessing does not heal anyone. Try thinking outside the guilt box, and see what happens for those around you.
Finally, one of the most effective steps toward escaping incessant guilt is simply owning your actions.
So you did something wrong. You neglected a loved one or yelled at a co-worker or were unkind to a waiter.
You did it. You’re not perfect. In fact, no one in the world is perfect. And what’s more, you know what you did was wrong. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t feel guilty right now.
Owning your actions simply means accepting that you did what you did. While guilt serves to tell us something important, it’s just a messenger. You wouldn’t grab the postal worker that delivers your mail and hold him hostage in your closet. Don’t do the same thing with guilt.
Once you get the message, that’s the end of it. Accepting that you cannot change the past allows you to focus on the more vital task of repairing what you’ve broken and learning from the mistake—if you don’t allow yourself these opportunities, you’re much more likely to make the same mistakes again.
Accept what has happened and keep going. It’s the best way to move past guilt.
Let it Go
Guilt can be incredibly useful in helping us to examine ourselves, our thoughts, and our actions in the context of our families and communities. It helps us realize when we’ve done someone harm.
But because guilt becomes harmful when allowed to fester—to ourselves, and to the very people we want to heal—we must be careful to never give it the foothold it doesn’t deserve.
So it’s time to take guilt off of that pedestal and place it into the emotional toolbox where it belongs. It’s there to guide you but for a moment before flitting away into the nether. Give guilt its correct place in your life, and you’ll not only find yourself happier, but those you love as well.