There are two types of moments in our lives. First are those in which we experience positive emotions like love, joy, equanimity, gratitude or peace. Second are those that create pits in our stomachs – the times in which we’re suffering, feeling fear, anger, anxiety, malaise or shame.
The emotions we see as negative do have a place, though. There are occasions when anger, for example, becomes the motivator for purposeful action and personal growth. Fear can be good for increasing our adrenaline during dangerous situations when we need heightened senses and increased physical ability. I also believe sadness can be a rich and positive experience when mourning the loss of a friend or loved one. As they say, it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
Guilt is another of those emotions that doesn’t feel so great. It’s triggered by the recognition that we did something wrong, something we would change if we could. Guilt can be positive, however, if it informs our future, motivating us to adjust to be better and more thoughtful in the future.
As a parent, I am constantly making mistakes that I feel guilty about. The key for me is to learn from them, though, and not just settle for feeling like a bad father. That’s when real suffering starts taking place.
Guilt becomes destructive when it turns into shame. Guilt is feeling bad about an action you’ve taken, while shame is feeling bad about yourself. Effectively managing guilt and preventing it from turning into shame is critical.
Here are 2 practical strategies and 3 unorthodox approaches for how to stop feeling guilty:
1-Maintain a Positive Self-view by Focusing on the Action
I mentioned this above, but it bears repeating for emphasis: The first mindset for managing guilt is the recognition that what you feel guilty about is an action that you’ve taken. It’s perfectly normal and even healthy to feel guilt, as long as you never connect it to your own character. This is the beginning of shame, and the road to the tremendous guilt that many people feel for years after the original guilty action took place.
2-Assuage Guilt by Always Righting the Wrong
I’ve read more parenting books than I can count, and one of my most difficult tasks as a parent is trying to instill values in my children through discipline. One great tip I’ve learned is to always make the child “right the wrong.” If they say something disrespectful, have them write an apology note. If they fail to turn in their homework, make sure they do it even if it’s too late for them to get credit for it in class. This will help them to understand the process of eliminating guilt by addressing the action that led to negative feelings.
To employ this yourself, the first and most obvious step is to define the action you’ll take to right the wrong. It’s vital that you emotionally connect that action with the moment you’ll release the feeling of guilt. Put simply, figure out the right thing, do it, acknowledge it, and move on.
3-Kickstart the Healing by Being Vulnerable
Brené Brown once said, “When we are vulnerable, we are powerful.” There is something so powerful about putting ourselves out there. When we do, our senses are heightened, we speak from the heart and the people in our lives listen to what we have to say. The act of admitting you’re wrong and apologizing can be therapeutic, even cathartic. It’s a great way to bring closure to guilt even if the other party may still hold resentment towards you.
You know how you feel better after you cry? The same holds true after allowing yourself to be vulnerable. Your words may not be perfect, and the other party may not be fully accepting, but the process of tapping into your emotions is deeply cleansing.
When you apologize to or reconcile with someone you’ve wronged, you have to give them all of yourself. The only way to do this is to get a little uncomfortable and let it rip. Don’t script the apology or think about it too much, just tell them you have something to say and then start rolling. If what you’re saying is coming from your heart, the process of healing will begin immediately.
4-Give Yourself a Break by Maintaining Self-Compassion
We’re brutal on ourselves. We criticize, we judge, we label. We turn guilt into shame through our own judgmental self-talk. We’d be arrested if we treated others the way we often treat ourselves.
Try this technique to help be more empathetic and compassionate with yourself: Put yourself in the role of mother or father to yourself. No one has more empathy and compassion than a loving parent. You’ll start saying things to yourself like, “You are a good person, you’re human and you made a mistake, so just make it right and everything will be fine.”
The ability to look at a situation from another perspective is incredibly powerful. It triggers a completely different set of emotions, and it’s the foundation of the empathy you need to be easier on yourself and move forward in growth.
5-Call Out Your Guilt by Labeling It
Modern psychology uses a technique called “labeling.” There are probably many names for it, but the idea is to simply be attentive to your thoughts and emotions and identify when you’re feeling guilt. This technique is being used with tremendous success among patients suffering from OCD, Tourette’s Syndrome, depression, and many other mental conditions. It can certainly be used to help manage your guilt.
If you’ve never done this, what I am about to say may sound crazy. Trust me, though: if you practice and perfect it, you’ll understand its power. The simple act of recognizing and labeling the thought does something very important – it separates you from your thought. You no longer identify yourself with the thought, but rather see it for what it is: a feeling that resides in your mind but doesn’t define you.
The next time you feel guilt (or any negative emotions, for that matter), try this simple technique. Be present and say to yourself, “What I am feeling is guilt,” and just allow yourself to be with it and observe it for a few moments. If you do nothing other than this, you will have greatly mitigated the chances of guilt becoming shame, just by separating it from your own sense of identity. If you want to take it a step further, you might say to yourself, “I have no need for guilt now, so I am going to let it go,” and then imagine the thought floating away into space.
The average person is on earth for roughly 6 million seconds. Every day, we gobble up 86,400 of those, a third of which are spent sleeping. Each moment we live in unnecessary guilt is a moment we’ll never get back. These are moments that can never be enjoyed and during which no purposeful action can be taken. Manage the guilt in your life, and start to take back those precious moments you have.