Guilt is an extremely common and often healthy force in our emotional process. Guilt can help to keep us on diets. It can help us know when to apologize and stop us from spending too much money. It can even have directly positive connotations (“guilty” pleasures) that help us keep a balance and let loose once in awhile.
Yet guilt can also hold us back and cause a number of emotional and physical setbacks in our lives. Distinguishing healthy and unhealthy guilt and can be very difficult due to the nature of the emotion. Anyone who’s been caught in the endless loop of feeling guilty for not seeming guilty enough knows just how thick the tangled web of guilt can become.
Let Go of Your Guilt, and Lighten Your Life
There’s no problem so awful, that you can’t add some guilt to it and make it even worse.
– Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes)
Signs your guilt might be unhealthy
The difficult thing about guilt is that it almost invariably has a good intention behind it — whether you’re struggling with moving your aging parents, recovering from addiction, or simply regretting some relationship choices. No matter the cause of your guilt, it’s valid. Feeling it is a natural part of the healing process. Often, it only becomes problematic when it goes on for too long.
Guilt can be a cause of serious and chronic stress. You should monitor your physical reactions to stress to help identify unhealthy associations. Symptoms can include:
- Upset stomach
- Elevated blood pressure
- Chest pain
- Lack of motivation
- Change in appetite
- Change in sex drive
- Anger or irritability
- Difficulty sleeping
Try to recognize if you’re beating yourself up for feeling a certain way. Especially among veterans, self-stigmatizing can lead to long-lasting conditions such as depression and severely affect quality of life. Guilt can lead people to internalize ideas that their problems are trivial or that they shouldn’t bother other people with them. Resisting this cycle of internal reinforcement is very important.
How to move the healing process along
The first thing to do is give yourself room to be where you are. By that, I mean saying to yourself that it’s okay to be hung up or moving slowly through a recovery from a harsh experience, or to be consistently stressed about family or work. Remove moral judgement from your place in the journey.
Next, resist comparing your pain to other people’s. Don’t use phrases like “they have it worse” — everyone has their own experiences to work through.
Perhaps most importantly, allow yourself to need professional help. Some people do preventative mental health checkups with therapists, and there’s no more shame in that than there is you going to see one for a specific issue.
Expect to take time. You deserve to give yourself time, and as much as is necessary.
Re-evaluate your perception of the issues
Guilt can often prevent us from having important but difficult conversations that may require all those involved to change their perception of the issues and take a few steps in each other’s shoes.
For example, one very common block that guilt creates is between adult children and their aging parents or grandparents. Often, conversations about downsizing or moving our parents or grandparents to an assisted living facility get delayed until they are forced by unfortunate circumstances. Things then end up needing to be done in a rush, because the older adult ends up in an emergency situation where it is no longer safe for them to return home alone. In the meantime, they may have been suffering from poor nutrition, falls, or poor quality of life.
In these cases, it may require professional intervention, and it is important not to see yourself as a villain. You must remember that you’re only trying to help, and try to make the rest of the family understand that. Getting over your feeling of guilt is the first step towards having these crucial conversations.
Another example of reframing your perspective relates to addiction. Alcohol and drug problems are often the result of unmanageable guilt and stress. So handling the guilt that you feel about family and friends that may have been hurt along the way is one of the most important steps to recovery. In this case, learning to let go of guilt could mean the difference between recovering and not recovering. So it’s important to reframe any debt you may feel toward your family as an imperative to get better, which is the same thing you owe yourself. Repairing burned bridges starts with you becoming your best self. That’s likely all most people who love you want to see.
Don’t try to live guilt-free, live guilt-light
You can’t eliminate negative emotions. Moreover, any emotion can be positive if you learn, through hard work and patience, to control and harness it constructively to become a better person.
Don’t start down the road of being ashamed of how you feel. Learning to value the experience of feeling guilt, and then to let it go afterward, is a big stepping stone to a less stressful life.
Remember: Letting go doesn’t mean abandoning or pushing away what you feel. Take it in, accept it, then work on changing it.