The majority of guilt experienced by human beings is not actually the result of horrible things said humans have done. Most of it takes the form of self-doubt, self-criticism, and self-punishment. Granted, sure, some of us do bad things. Killing another person would be one prime example, as would cheating, lying, stealing, etc. But of course, each and every one of those actions is mired in a unique context that serves to dictate the already highly subjective notions of good and bad.
Plus, remorse over having harmed someone and guilt are not the same, because while remorse may indeed be a marker of humanity, guilt is essentially a worthless emotion. Most of our guilt is self-directed, such as when we fail to live up to our own or another’s expectations (a fine line). This might be related to work, love, family, or anything else.
When you’re relaxing, do you feel guilty for not working? When you’re working, do you feel guilty for not being home with your family? When you’re with your partner, do you feel guilty for not being with your friends more, or vice versa? Most of us are riddled with guilt in subtle ways we’re barely aware of. No matter what the source, guilt can become a constraining emotional backdrop, coloring everything we do. It may even seem that one’s sense of guilt (often conflated with one’s sense of duty) is what stirs one to action, makes one a better person. Indeed, research shows that people prone to guilt work harder and are seen as better leaders. And they’re also seen as better friends, lovers and employees.
The thing is, no matter what it looks like on the outside, over time, guilt becomes debilitating and toxic. While it may feel like guilt is an important reminder of our responsibilities, in reality it’s accomplishing just the opposite — it’s a deadweight that keeps us from stepping into our full power and potential. Worried about holding yourself accountable? Forgiving yourself helps you move on and increase personal accountability, while guilt doesn’t accomplish much of anything.
Here’s how to stop feeling guilty (easier said than done, yes, but we have to start somewhere):
Don’t blow things out of proportion
If you were on the outside, looking in, would your all-encompassing feelings of guilt, shame, or other paralyzing emotions fit the alleged crime? Probably not.
Don’t self-identify based on something you’ve done
You’re responsible for your actions, sure, but even if you’ve done something bad, that doesn’t make you a qualitatively bad person. It just makes you human.
Counterintuitive though it may feel to the anxiety-ridden among us, forgiving yourself actually makes you a better person. Thinking you’re shit makes you kinda shit, a la self-fulfilling prophecy.
Apologize…if an apology is called for
If indeed your guilt is directed at a human other than you, say you’re sorry for whatever it is you’re sorry for. Saying it once is enough if you mean it. And if you say it, be sure you mean it.
Learn the lessons
Life is punctuated with endless disharmonies so that we might glean little morsels of helpful self-knowledge and be on our merry way, all the wiser. Make a list of any proactive thing you can do to improve the situation and stop bearing the unnecessary, deeply counterproductive emotional burden known as guilt.