Ways to Help You Understand and Deal with Guilt

When I first fell ill, guilt was a constant emotion that played a huge part in my life. I used to feel it was “my fault” I fell ill and that I had let my parents down. I can still remember the horrendous guilt I felt through each holiday we had to cancel due to my ill-health, and how I felt if I had only done this or that in the past things might be different now. When I discovered mindfulness and meditation, it helped me realise the guilt that I was feeling was over something that was out of my control, and therefore the guilt served no purpose. It also helped me to see that just because I was ill, it didn’t mean I deserved to feel guilty about it, and nor should I let others inflict that guilt upon me. Furthermore, I used to always be someone who would ruminate about situations or conversations where I had been hurtful to other people or done wrong, and kept the guilt as a form of punishment for my actions. But again, my mindfulness skills helped me realise that by holding onto my guilt meant I was always living in the past. The best thing to do was to forgive myself for past mistakes, learn from it, and most importantly, move on and let go.

Everyone experiences the emotion of guilt at some point or another. For a lot of us, guilt seems to be one of the hardest emotions to let go. We often carry around the dead weight of past failures, relationship difficulties, unresolved arguments, or things we did or didn’t say. We struggle to let go of the past, brood about things that did or didn’t happen, and worry about things that haven’t happened yet. The problem with guilt is it can have a severe impact on your self-esteem, it can also lead to a lot of self-criticism, and it prevents you from being able to move forward in life.

To understand how to deal with guilt, the first thing you need to do is to recognise what kind of guilt you are feeling. Guilt comes in two categories; guilt that is caused by something within your control, and guilt that is caused by something out of your control. Guilt caused by something within your control includes things such as causing wrongdoing to others, either through words, actions, or decisions, and consequently having a negative impact on them. For instance, cheating on a partner, intentionally saying something mean to someone, or spreading cruel rumours. Guilt caused by something out of your control, includes things such as mental and physical illness or other people’s actions. For example, you may feel guilty because your child is un-well and you feel it is in some way your fault, or the company you work for goes bankrupt meaning you lose your job which causes you to feel guilty about the impact this will have on your family. We will now look at ways to help you deal with these two different kinds of guilt:

Guilt that is caused by something within your control:

  1. Acceptance – The first thing to do is to accept the fact you did something wrong. The sooner you accept this, the quicker you can make any amends that you need to make and allow yourself and the other person involved to move on. If we ignore the feeling of guilt, the guilty feeling will keep returning time and time again until we’ve learnt our lesson. By accepting what you’ve done, it will also help you to stop you wishing you could change what happened, and allow to accept the situation, making it easier to move on.
  1. Recognise irreversibility – So many of us ruminate about past events and think, “What if I did this?”, “What if I had done that?”. The major problem with this kind of thinking is that you can’t change what happened, no matter how much you wish you could, you cannot go back in time and fix it! Therefore, this kind of thinking is of absolutely no benefit to anyone. The best thing to do is to accept the fact you cannot change the past and stay focused on how you can avoid repeating the same mistake in the future.
  1. Forgive yourself – We all do things we regret every day. We hurt people we don’t mean to hurt, we say the wrong things without thinking, and we act in irrational ways when we are feeling overwhelmed with emotions. To learn to forgive yourself you need to remember that you are not the only one making mistakes!
  1. Self-reflect – We can learn lessons from everything in life, so if you’re feeling guilty for something you keep doing, reflect upon this and walk through where you keep going wrong and how you can change that. Self-reflection is still very new to me, but I’m finding it incredibly useful to help myself react to situations better. If I don’t handle a situation or conversation well, I think about how I could have handled it differently and mindfully recognise how I felt leading up to, during, and after the situation. You can either make a mental note or write it down. Make sure to use this time as a healthy, positive period of self-reflection, and not as a time for criticising yourself. To read more on “How to Mindfully Respond to Situations”, click here.
  1. Move on – The biggest reason a lot of us still feel guilty is because we are still dwelling over the situation. But you won’t be able to learn and grow from mistakes if you are still living in the past. Learn from your mistakes, make any apologies and amends you need to, and then move on.
  1. Let it go – If the situation is still unresolved, or the person who you hurt refuses to forgive you, it is still very important to forgive yourself and let the situation go. You cannot control the other person’s reaction or whether they forgive you or not. Therefore, if you have tried your best to make amends and most importantly have learnt from your actions, you must understand that you cannot wait on the other person’s forgiveness to release your own guilt. Make a conscious decision to let the feelings and memories drift away, and leave it behind.

Guilt caused by something out of your control:

  1. Recognise it’s out of your control – This is one of the most important lessons to learn, as you may believe that if you are feeling guilty about something then you must have done something wrong. For example, if you are suffering from a mental or physical illness, then the guilt is not rational, because you did not choose to be ill. My meditation teacher always used to tell us, “If you can do something about it, you must, if you can’t, then let it go, because it is not in your control”.
  1. You don’t deserve to feel guilty – You might say to yourself, “but it’s my fault” or “I deserve to feel guilty”, but if it’s out of your control you have NO reason to feel guilty. I often told myself it was my fault my parents couldn’t go on holiday, and although technically yes, I am the reason they can’t go on holiday, I am not the “fault”, because the fault is my illness, which is something I have little control over and can’t change. Don’t allow yourself to misplace where the fault lies; if it’s not in your control, it’s not your fault.
  1. You are not in control of other people’s well-being – A lot of people, especially parents, often feel responsible for their children’s well-being. But again, you need to remember that you have very little control over someone else’s actions or well-being, and that includes your children!!
  1. Practise mindfulness – By practising mindfulness, it will help you recognise when the emotion of guilt arises, and instead of then feeling the full force of the emotion, mindfulness gives you the space to see the emotion and understand it. This will allow you the time to question whether the guilt is something that is in your control, and to understand where the guilt has come from. Recognise that sometimes your thoughts are just thoughts, not reality!
  1. Recognise where the guilt is coming from – Usually guilt is something we inflict upon ourselves, but unfortunately there are times when the guilt we feel is imposed on us by someone else. It is best to talk to the person who is making you feel guilty and make sure they understand you have no control over whatever the situation is that they are making you feel guilty about. For example, if you have to cancel plans last minute due to ill health, it is important you help them understand that you aren’t cancelling out of choice. However, if someone is still making you feel guilty even after you have talked to them, then you really need to question whether you want that person in your life. No one should ever allow you to feel guilty for something that is out of your control.
  1. Don’t blame yourself – Never blame yourself for a mistake or accident that wasn’t fully in your control. For example, say you were involved in a car crash and you were the one driving with your child in the passenger seat, no one was seriously hurt, but you felt immense guilt for what happened. The insurance company decided the fault was 50/50, but you felt it was all your fault. You kept thinking, “What if she hadn’t had her seat belt on? How could I put my child’s life at risk like that? What if I had been driving slower?” By going along this kind of thinking you are only making yourself feel worse and enforcing the idea that the accident was your responsibility. Accidents happen every day and unfortunately most of them we cannot control.
  1. No one is perfect – There is huge pressure in society today for individuals to work very hard, get the perfect grades, mums to balance having kids and a career, looking great and working out regularly, mixing in the right social circle and being invited to everything. It’s so easy to feel guilty for not living up to these standards, but you need to recognise these standards aren’t real. No one is perfect, a perfect being does not exist, so if you’re feeling guilty about something that is due to western pressures of everyday society, it is important you recognise that it is impossible to live up to those standards.
  1. Self-kindness – If you are feeling guilty, it is also likely you are criticising yourself a lot, as guilt and self-criticism come hand in hand. It is important to address your criticising thoughts and to start to replace them with kinder, more compassionate ones. To read more about “Why You Need to Practise Being Kind to Yourself”, click here, and to read “12 Ways to Practise Being Kind to Yourself”, click here.
  1. Regret does not mean you should feel guilty – Regret means you feel sad over something you did or didn’t do, whereas guilt means you feel you have done something wrong or hurtful to others and therefore hold some responsibly. For example, if a loved one dies suddenly, you might feel a regret that you didn’t spend enough time with them, or regret something you said or didn’t say. Often these feelings of regret can turn into guilt and make you feel somehow responsible for what happened, but it is important to recognise that just because you regret something, that does not mean you should feel guilty or anyway responsible, so don’t mix up the two emotions. 

I hope you found this post useful and it can finally help you to release your guilt and move on.

Metta, E xx

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