3 Ways to Deal With Guilt From Your Past and Present
How to Let Go of The Mistakes Every Human Being Makes
Guilty of feeling guilty? We’ve all been there. That period right after there’s been an event or action and you sense regret and responsibility. At times the incident has affected others, caused a difficult circumstance or led to other adverse life effects. Maybe it’s just yourself who ensures the consequences which in turn affects those around you as they become witness to a guilt-ridden version of a person they care about.
Guilt affects multiple areas of your life, not to mention those around you. When you are guilty, you remain distant, scared and withdrawn from family, work and social gatherings. Avoiding others and acting irrationally becomes a way to hide your guilt. Your behaviour is your own form of ‘punishment’ for the guilt you are dealing with. And as long as you continue there will be no end date, unless you try to overcome your guilt.
Living with the emotion takes a negative toll on your entire life, with each day becoming another 24-hours of burdening stress. If it’s not dealt with, guilt will gnaw at you and drag you down until you reach your lowest point. Considering it’s not always warranted, your mental wellbeing and the hours of time wasted each week feeling guilty, mean you should do something about it.
What is Guilt?
Guilt is an emotion you feel if you’ve let yourself or others down because of an action you’ve initiated. It’s usually something outside the boundaries of your core values. Everybody has standards and guilt is one of the repercussions you’ll feel when they’re not maintained.
The emotion is a natural response when we’ve done something wrong and helps you develop a greater sense of self-awareness. You are forced to examine how your behavior affects others and if you are quick enough, this can be an opportunity to make changes before it’s too late.
Just because you feel guilty, doesn’t mean you are as the emotion can be disproportionate, misplaced and irrational. There are situations you can’t control and despite what you thought, you did nothing wrong. When you feel guilt you know something is up, but this doesn’t necessarily mean the emotion is rational and has any purpose.
Regardless, guilt can stay with you for life which is why you need to overcome it as soon as possible. Learning to manage the emotion can help you identify if it was warranted in the first place, as well as leave you with a life skill you can turn to when the feelings come up again.
It’s Not All Bad
While your associations with guilt may be negative, it does actually have a positive function.
Let’s start by focusing on how you are actually feeling guilty. This is a good thing. When you feel guilt, you are taking responsibility for something wrong you’ve done, and this develops a greater sense of self-awareness. You’re a good person and you don’t like what’s happened because you know it was wrong. Moving on with life right after a destructive series of events, with no sadness or empathy are signs of a thoughtless human being. You have moral and ethical standards which are positive personality traits.
Another thing to consider is whether your guilt surrounds a behaviour you’ve actioned, or a thought you are having. If you’ve not acted on the thought, that’s a promising sign you are aware and concerned about other people, or yourself. Recognising these thoughts takes a lot of strength when they are so appealing, and accessible for you to convert to behaviours.
Guilt can help you make moral decisions in which case it becomes a useful emotion. At its most constructive, you’re reminded that you can do better in the future.
Signs Of Guilt
Most people know when they are guilty. It’s an emotion, so it’s felt by you and you only. It’s easy to overlook however, as the signs can be hidden in your everyday actions for as long as you can get away with. Guilt symptoms can also be similar to other things we feel such as depression, stress or fear in which case you’ll assume these as justification for how you are feeling. While it’s easy to turn to solutions which are directed at those secondary emotions, you need to target the source first.
Guilt often results in sadness, sorrow and even physical discomfort. Depression and stress can also be experienced, which can quickly escalate into severe mental health shifts. You also feel angry and frustrated which makes you irritable with consistent mood swings taking a toll on others around you.
Guilty people remain sensitive to the effects of every action by them and by others. You scrutinise over decisions in fear of further feeding your already established guilt. You’ll find it harder to make decisions in general, worried the repercussions may come back to haunt you like the last one. If you’re guilty you’ll also experience low self-esteem as your own opinion of yourself diminishes. Putting others before yourself will become a priority, as your low self-worth becomes further punishment.
Avoidance becomes a driving stimulant when your guilty. Avoidance of emotions, friends, family, events and decisions for as long as you can get away with. There is constant fear the situation will get worse which in your eyes is the only possibility. So the less you do, the less you see and the less you experience, the easier it will be to live with the guilt. Right? Wrong.
Why You Need to Overcome Guilt
Guilt should not be forever and the accumulative effects are often not realised until it’s too late.. That’s why we have ways to overcome the emotion which are available to anyone regardless of the severity of the incident, how long ago it was or the feelings of guilt themselves.
You need to overcome your guilt so you can not only grow as a person, but continue living the life you deserve. The emotion creates multiple barriers when it comes to achieving anything whether it’s through work, family life or personal goals. You are doing much more harm to yourself by not overcoming it than by ignoring it.
Never Say Never
You may have done something years ago and lived with the emotion for that long waiting for a miracle event which allows you to forget all about it. Or sometimes guilt only sets in once the repercussions are realised. Other times, it’s just personal growth which makes us realise our guilt and leads to further consequence taking control of your life. People can ignore guilt for as long as the mind will let them, but the cover up is bound to catch up with you at some point. If you think you’ll forget about it, you’re wrong.
It’s never too late to overcome your guilt. The choice is always going to be yours because as long as your alive and conscious, you can still forgive yourself. The longer you wait, the worse you’re going to feel and the more likely it is that other events will arise to cover up the past. You allow yourself more time to gravitate towards unhealthy habits in an attempt to eliminate the pain.
Mechanisms to overcome guilt are just as accessible and effective regardless of whether the event is past or present. Maybe you needed those years to recover, but now is the time to get over it by making amends with yourself before you lose more valuable time dealing with the emotion. Once you’ve dealt with your guilt, you’ll wonder why you waited so long to do it in the first place.
Overcome Your Guilt
It’s not rocket science, but it does require some deep conversations with yourself and complete honesty. You also need to remind yourself how you deserve to overcome the guilt and you owe it to yourself to at least try. Think of all the good things which will emerge once you’ve nipped this thing in the bud. For you, your loved ones and your future self.
Learn From Your Mistakes
If you’re going to get anything out of the event, you may as well right? Legitimate guilt is trying to get your attention, so we can learn something from the experience. It’s happened. When you learn from what you have (or haven’t) done, you’re making the world a better place by assuring it won’t happen again.
Think back to what happened. How could it have been avoided? Once you identify this, you can grow with what you’ve learnt and apply it to the rest of your life. You might take action right away to instantly lower the chances of further guilt or a repeat of the event. Perhaps you can implement new processes in the workplace, spend more time at home, or do up a budget plan. These things show you’ve learnt from your mistakes and are trying really hard to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
If it couldn’t have been avoided and was one hundred per cent beyond your control, there’s a whole other lesson to be learnt in that what you’ve experienced is unhealthy guilt. You can’t change your future behaviour because there was never anything wrong with it to begin with. The lesson learnt is sometimes things happen in life which are beyond our control. Life’s not fair and its people who suffer the consequences. The only way you can get through them is to build resilience and continue to showcase your positive attributes in everything you do.
You’ve forgiven others before, right? It’s time to practice some self-compassion by letting go of your guilt and moving on for the sake of your mental health, wellbeing and those around you. Think responsibility, remorse, restoration and renewal. Humans make mistakes. All of them. Not even your friends or family members who appear to be perfect, have lived guilt-free lives despite what their social media accounts may indicate.
Forgiving yourself doesn’t mean you’re off the hook or condoning the behaviour. It allows you to accept what’s happened, so you can move past it without letting the repercussions continue to control your emotions. You’re only human and engaging in blame or battering your self-esteem won’t do anything other than bring you even further down.
Think about all the other people in the world who have reciprocated your behaviour, and even worse, not felt guilty about it at all. Whether it’s cheating on a spouse or missing your child’s football game, we all have moments of weakness which are just near impossible to overcome. Doesn’t make it ok, however if there are other people who have been in your shoes then you know it’s through natural human error that what’s happened has happened.
It’s also worth looking at your expectations, to make sure they’re realistic. If you are constantly striving for perfection in any part of your life you are bound to fail more than once. Your feelings of guilt will reoccur as unrealistic expectations are never reached.
Confess And Apologise
Time to take that weight of your shoulders. It’s happened. There’s no denying that. What control do you have over the situation which gives you power to reverse or reduce the effects? No matter how frightened you are of confessing or apologising, it’s never going to be worth the burden you’re facing for the rest of your life if you don’t.
Make a list of everything you want to say, and a time to say it. Your worst-case scenario is another person doesn’t forgive you. Doesn’t mean they never will and doesn’t mean you should have kept your mouth shut. Sometimes people need time especially when they don’t see something coming. Other people who perhaps are not willing to forgive may need time to work on themselves before they are able to move past things. Rest assured, your honesty is always going to be the right thing and they will realise this too at some point.
We know this isn’t always going to be possible, if you’re guilt is associated with letting yourself down or the people it’s affected are unaware of the incident. You can still come clean, by speaking to someone else about it. Admitting you’ve done something will be a big relief, and you’ll come out stronger with a sense of pride which will deter you from repeating the behaviour.
Think of it as short term pain for long term gain.
Do The Best You Can
The severity of guilty varies and everyone’s experience is always going to be different. Actions and thoughts can be extreme or minuscule, undesirable behaviours can go on for months or have an effect for years. And then there’s unhealthy guilt where you are just obligated to feel the emotion for no good reason and no one to tell you any differently.
Guilt is supposed to help you make a morally upright decision. If you didn’t in the moment, you still have time to be a good person by learning from your mistakes, forgiving yourself and making amends. That’s why the guilt sticks around, as a constant reminder there is still a way to beat this emotion and come out with more strength, resilience and compassion then ever before.
These coping mechanisms will do wonders for your mind to get through any guilt you’re experiencing now, and any you might come across into the future. And before you turn to them again make sure you assess whether it’s rational behaviour or just an irrational response to a situation.