Most people feel guilt at one point or another in their lives – it’s a feeling of responsibility for something that’s happened, usually bad or wrong. It can have various sources and some of it can come from childhood when parents, teachers or friends blamed a child for something that had happened, even though the child might have done something in all innocence. That feeling can follow us into adulthood and becomes a problem if it affects everyday life.
It can sometimes be a good thing because it promotes remorse and can change future behaviour in a positive way, helping us to grow as people, but it’s unproductive when someone gets into a guilt/shame cycle.
A modern-day example of this might be that a lot of first-time (and maybe second and third time) parents worry about returning to work and leaving their baby with a childminder or in a nursery. They feel it will cause untold damage to their child’s development although there isn’t any hard evidence to support this. Guilt isn’t always rational though and I know from counselling over the years that many parents have this particular guilt. Unfortunately, it produces even more irrational guilt which results in low self-esteem and clients becoming even more self-critical – not a good cycle to get into and not helpful for them or their child/children.
Sometimes we can feel guilty about events outside our control, such as not seeing a loved one before they died or being involved in a car accident where your friend was killed but you survived. This is known as ‘survivor’s guilt’ and happens when we try to make sense of something traumatic that’s occurred.
If you’re feeling guilty about something, first of all try to clarify what it is that’s causing the guilt – this is the first step to doing something about it.
If, for instance, you’ve said something that’s upset a close friend, hopefully you will learn from the mistake. From that perspective, the guilt has worked positively if you change your behaviour and stop yourself from saying something tactless to that friend or others in the future. All you can do to heal any breach is to apologise and explain why you said it, conceding that it wasn’t a helpful thing to say and that you could have handled things a lot better. Just because you’ve apologised, it doesn’t mean that your friend has to accept it but you can’t control how someone else reacts, so you may have to leave it at that and hope that time will heal any breach.
If you left the back gate open and the family dog escaped and was run over, the whole family including you, is going to be upset. Again, sincere apologies can help but this sort of loss takes time to recover from so don’t expect too much too soon, of yourself or others.
If you broke up from your partner and they’re feeling upset and tearful about this, there is bound to be guilt on your part but ultimately there might be more guilt if you stayed in a relationship that was unhappy and told him/her later down the line. Accept the guilt but tell yourself “I know this is hard but I can’t avoid this pain – to some extent it will pass and I will learn to live with it for the time-being”.
Try to reflect on the different possibilities to modify your behaviour and make a commitment to change. For example, your friend dying in an accident is a tragedy and a lot of people, including you, will be grieving which and that needs to be acknowledged, but you can try to forgive yourself and be as supportive and caring towards their family as possible. It’s easy to over-estimate what you could have done/might have done in these circumstances. Likewise, you can’t bring back the family dog but you can make sure that you’re more careful about letting pets out of the house in future.
As well as modifying your behaviour in the future, it’s worth thinking about turning your guilt into gratitude. Sounds strange? To do this, it’s necessary to realise that guilt can also be productive by helping you to build empathy so that transforming your own statements of guilt into statements of gratitude adds worth to those experiences. It helps to change how you view the past and turns it into something more productive.
If you write down some of the guilt that you’ve been experiencing and turn each one into a gratitude, it can really help. For instance, you can start with those statements that run along the lines of “I can’t believe that I ……..” and “I could have…………….” and change them into phrases that express gratitude in some way. An example might be: “I shouldn’t have been so critical of my partner when we were together” could be changed into “I’m grateful that I can now learn to be a lot less critical in any future relationship because I know it can be damaging” or “Why didn’t I stop gambling? It meant that my whole family fell apart” which might be changed to “I’m grateful that I’ve learnt how to control my addiction – now I can start making amends to all the people I hurt”.
Another way of dealing with guilt is to write a letter to your younger self or the person you were when you did something that you feel guilty about. When writing, use a loving tone reminding your other self that the past often offers valuable opportunities to learn, building empathy for others. Include how you behaved in a way that you wish now that you hadn’t and close the letter by writing that it is now time to forgive yourself and let it go.
Writing things down can be particularly therapeutic and as well as writing a letter to your past self, you could start a journal to put any thoughts down which threaten to overwhelm you. It’s a way of dealing with them whilst being compassionate towards yourself. At the end of the letter, try putting in some affirmations – these could include something like:
- “I am not perfect. I make mistakes, but I can learn from my past.”
- I am a good person and deserve the best despite my past actions.”
- “I’m human, just like everyone else.”
So, in summary, learning how to deal with guilt comes down to understanding what’s really happening – once you understand that, you can take control of your emotions and choose how you respond. You can start making the best decisions for you and those around you and leave some of those feelings of sadness behind you.