Guilt, like retrospect or regret, is one of those things that comes a little bit too late. Often it is a completely useless emotion as it means you’ve already acted and that you can’t ‘take back’ whatever it is that’s making you feel low. And in fact in some cases it is completely useless and misplaced and we find ourselves feeling guilty and punishing ourselves for something that was unavoidable or completely not our own fault.
Many people feel guilty over the death of a loved one – even when it was cancer or a traffic accident that took their life. In other cases we can feel guilty for doing something that we enjoyed or that brought us pleasure – even when it has no negative consequences to speak of. Why should you feel guilty for doing something that makes you happy?
On rare occasions guilt can be a positive emotion – but only when it shows us the error of our ways and motivates us to make things right. When there is nothing that can be done, or when we are actually innocent then it is a destructive and sometimes crippling feeling that is undeserved. So how do you go about getting over those feelings of guilt?
Identify the Cause
First of all, identify the cause of your guilt so that you can address it. We’ve already touched on some of the things that can result in feelings of guilt, but we will look at them again here in slightly more detail. By understanding the cause of your guilt, the surface level and the deeper connotations, you can better work out how to address it and placate it.
Pleasure: Many people feel guilty when they pleasure themselves in any way – whether that’s through masturbation, through sneaking chocolates in the kitchen, or from sitting down to enjoy some ‘me time’ for ten minutes. There is no reason to feel guilty about pleasuring yourself however – we are driven to seek out satisfaction and it’s what gives life color. If you never had any fun, never enjoyed yourself, then what would be the point in everything else?
Where does this feeling come from? Well actually it tends to be drummed into us by society and by our parents at a young age. In trying to teach us discipline they smacked us for steeling sweets and chastised us for watching TV all day. Meanwhile in adult life society frowns on gluttony and on self-pleasuring and few people talk openly about masturbation. This is a throwback again to older times, and actually as long as the behavior isn’t addicting there is nothing harmful or damaging about pleasuring yourself and it can in fact help you to last longer in the bedroom. Don’t let old arcane rules that no longer apply guide your behavior, think instead about what the consequences are of your actions and if they aren’t negative – don’t feel guilty. You were born free and if you aren’t free in your own mind then when are you?
Cheating: If you have cheated, lied or generally broken your code of ethics then you will likely feel guilty about having done so. While you might be right to feel guilty in this case, recognize that there is no benefit to letting it cripple you if you can’t change it. At the same time realize that your own moral code is merely arbitrary. There are no rules and there is no right or wrong way to do things – other people might find nothing wrong in your behavior or might not see it as a ‘big deal’.
Hurting Others: Whether intentionally or unintentionally, hurting someone is something that makes us feel guilty. This is empathy mixed with shouldering the blame and it’s a horrible feeling. Again though, unless you can do something about this then there’s little value to feeling wracked with guilt. Your motive was unlikely to be hurting someone (or you wouldn’t feel guilty) and so you should judge yourself on that – not on the outcome.
Fortune: If you are very fortunate in some way – if you have won the lottery, or if you were born into wealth – then you can end up feeling guilty that other people don’t have your good luck and this can prevent you from enjoying yourself. The reality is though that some people are simply luckier than others – it’s random – and actually ‘random’ is the only way it could be fair. While it’s good to feel grateful there’s no use in feeling guilty as someone has to get lucky. The best action is to enjoy your situation, so at least it’s not wasted and someone gets to be happy.
Loss: If something terrible happens then we have a tendency to blame ourselves. This comes from a basic psychological process. We are programmed to believe in cause and effect – so that if we suffer something traumatic that seemingly has no cause such as a random death in the family – we try to place blame. If we can’t see any cause then we might blame ourselves by saying that we fed that person the wrong diet, that we shouldn’t have asked them to go out for milk, or that we should have been with them or seen a different doctor. Of course none of this is at all logical – and if nothing bad had happened then you would realize this and wouldn’t berate yourself for your actions. If you’d gone out for the crisps, maybe they’d have fallen down the stairs? There is no way to predict what is going to happen and your focus should be on helping your loved ones to move ahead, not having illogical thoughts about the past.
Failure: Often you can feel like a ‘failure’ and this could mean you failed your children, or you let your parents down with your career. Again though, guilt isn’t the answer, the answer is to make amends because it is never too late. At the same time chances are that those you think you’ve failed don’t see things that way at all – ask them and they will probably tell you how proud they are of you or how grateful they are to you.
Thoughts: Often we feel guilty for our thoughts. Maybe you think ill of the dead, or maybe you think lustfully about someone who is married, unavailable or otherwise inappropriate. We have a tendency to feel as though our thoughts are being monitored – that thinking something bad about the dead will somehow affect them, or that thinking lustful thoughts makes us a bad person. Realize though that your thoughts alone have no repercussions and as our dreams demonstrate thoughts often have a tendency to go into unusual places when left unmonitored. Honestly all of us think things that we aren’t proud of, but again as there are no repercussions there is really no need to feel guilty. Repeat whatever it is you feel guilty in your mind and feel its power diminish. They’re just thoughts, they don’t do any harm, and as long as you know the difference between right and wrong they don’t reflect ill on you.
What to Do
So you’ve identified the cause of the guilt and now you understand a little more about where it comes from. In some cases that will be enough to do away with the emotion, but in others it will not and you’ll need to take other measures. Here we will look at some other things you can do to combat guilt.
Ask for Forgiveness: If you can’t reason your way out of your guilt, or if you have genuinely hurt someone, then asking them to forgive you can bring a great sense of relief. Often you will have blown the situation out of proportion in your mind so they will be happy to tell you not to worry. And if they don’t worry, then why should you?
Take Action: If you can’t directly apologize, or that doesn’t seem like enough, then you can go about making amends. For instance say you had to fire someone in your line of work and were feeling highly guilty, then you could help them find a new job, or give them a generous Christmas bonus as compensation to make you – and them – feel better. Make sure not to ‘overdo it’ though as we have a tendency to do, and remember that your aim should be to make things better for them, not to make yourself feel better and make them feel awkward in the process.
Balance it Out: If you can’t make amends for what you have done, then you might be able to do something else that makes you feel better. For instance give some money to charity and it might make you feel better about something else that went badly. Remember again though not to overdo it and punish yourself in the process. This is about giving, not about punishment.
Talk: Sometimes you just need to get the guilt off your chest and telling a friend about your guilt can feel like a great relief that really makes you feel better. A friend or family member might also help you to get better perspective on the matter and realize that you’re really not to blame.
CBT: If you still feel guilt then it’s a good idea to talk to someone who can help you better understand the reality behind your feelings. While a friend or family member can help a lot, a therapist is trained to deal with these kinds of emotions and thoughts and knows precisely how to change them. There are lots of different kinds of therapy but particularly useful is ‘CBT’. This stands for ‘cognitive behavioral therapy’ and it aims at altering the contents of your thoughts to eradicate negative thought processes and replace them with thoughts that will help you to improve your psychology and to feel better. For instance if you are thinking ‘I let my family down’ then they can help you to replace that feeling with ‘there was nothing I could do’.