Shame and guilt are two highly powerful emotions, but despite how strongly we feel them, they are also actually largely useless. In many cases we feel shame or guilt over things that we cannot change – things we have done in the past that perhaps no one knows about, or that perhaps are long since buried. If we did something we weren’t proud of or something degrading, or if we stepped on the toes of someone else or cheated to get to where we wanted to be, or if we felt we failed someone when we could have done more… All of these things can bring on feelings of shame and guilt and these can be highly distressing, distracting and upsetting.
In some cases we might find that those feelings of guilt motivate us to do something about those transgressions and to ‘make amends’. However in many cases this isn’t possible. For one, very often we will feel guilty we actually we are not to blame – for instance people will often feel guilty after the death of a loved one and will feel ‘it should have been them’ or that they ‘should have known’. Then there are situations where our guilt is disproportionate to the situation – where we are consumed by guilt over something very minor that really doesn’t matter that much in the ‘grand scheme’ of things.
In other cases we might be wracked or consumed with guilt when there is really very little we can do to change matters. In such situations there is no purpose to that guilt and all it is doing is preventing us from getting on with our lives as we should.
In any of these cases it is important to learn how to move past that guilt and to make sure we don’t suffer it unnecessarily. Here we will look at how to do that.
The First Steps
The first thing you need to do if you are struggling with guilt is to redeem yourself as much as possible. If you are feeling justly guilty, and if you have done something wrong, then that guilt exists to motivate you to make amends. So make amends you must if you can. If that means giving back something you’ve stolen, or if it means caring for someone you’ve harmed, then this is something positive to come out of that guilt.
Next, if indeed your guilt is justified, you need to ensure you don’t do whatever it is again. You can’t change the past unfortunately, but you can use it to inform the future. Use guilt as a learning aid then and simply outline what it is that you did that you aren’t happy with and then make a pledge that it won’t happen again.
Finally – apologize and explain yourself. This is something that can help even if your guilt is misplaced – if you just tell the ‘victim’ how you feel and ask for their forgiveness then it can feel like a huge weight off your shoulders and help you to feel a lot better about yourself. If there’s not someone you can apologize directly to – in the case of a deceased loved one for instance – then you can try writing a letter to them or using the ‘empty chair’ technique in order to imagine you are talking to them and to get matters off of your chest.
Overcoming the Guilt
Once you have done these things, being guilty no longer serves any purpose other than to make life more difficult for you. As such you need to focus on overcoming that guilt and you need to work at getting on with your life once again.
One way to try to do this is to again try writing down everything that you feel guilty about and externalizing it. Better yet is simply to talk to someone – and to tell them how you feel. Often part of what makes guilt hard is the feeling that it’s a secret and that we can’t tell anyone. By simply expressing ourselves rather than bottling it all up, we tend to feel a lot better and this can be a great help. If you have no friends or family to talk to, then try a therapist – or if not why not someone anonymous online?
Next you need to change your way of thinking. This is something that is used commonly in CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) where it is known as ‘cognitive restructuring’. The idea is that you replace your negative thoughts with positive ones, which you can do first by identifying the negative thoughts as you have them, and then by replacing them with suitable alternative thoughts. These might be things such as ‘there is nothing I can do now’, ‘I learned a valuable lesson’, or ‘I did what I thought was best at the time’.
It may also help you to examine the reasons that you did what you did at the time. This is something that can help a lot – it is very rare that we ever do something on purpose that feel guilty about at the time. Most of us are guided by our conscience and it is then only after the fact that we sometimes decide that we acted in the wrong way. Thus if we look impartially at our decisions at the time then they will often seem a lot better and a lot fairer helping us to forgive ourselves.
And it may even help to verbally forgive yourself. To say outline or think in your head ‘I forgive myself’. This can then add a sense of closure to the event and help us to move on and move past it. And if you continue being unable to overcome those feelings of guilt you should seek help from a therapist who can help to get to the bottom of your feelings and guide you through and past them.