How to Eliminate Guilt

Three Parts:Understanding Your GuiltMaking AmendsEngaging in Cognitive Restructuring

Everyone experiences guilt at one time or another during their life. Guilt is a feeling of responsibility for something bad or wrong.[1] Guilt has various sources. For example, it may come from thinking that you have done something wrong, caused someone harm or did nothing when you should have acted. It can also come from a sense that you have succeeded when others have failed, as in the case of survivor's guilt.[2] Guilt is not always a bad thing, since it often promotes remorse, changes in future behavior, and feelings of empathy. At the same time, however, guilt can become a problem when it is unproductive and does not help change behavior but instead causes a guilt-and-shame cycle.[3]

Part 1
Understanding Your Guilt

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    Understand productive guilt. Guilt can be productive; it can help us grow and mature and, most importantly, learn from our behavior when we offend or hurt others or ourselves. This type of guilt serves a purpose and encourages us to redirect our moral and/or behavioral compass.[4]
    • For example, if you said something offensive to a close friend over which you feel guilty because it upset them, you will learn not to say those types of things or else you risk losing friends. In other words, you will learn from your mistake. In this sense, then, the guilt has worked productively to positively reshape your behavior.[5]
    • To give another example, if you feel guilty because you ate an entire bag of chips, that's your brain's way of reminding you about a behavior you probably already know is unhealthy and can adversely affect your well-being. Thus, the rational feeling of guilt motivates you to reflect on and change your behavior for the better.[6][7]
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    Understand unproductive guilt. Guilt can also be unproductive, in the sense that you feel guilt even when your behavior doesn't need reflection or transformation. This is irrational guilt that can devolve into a cycle where you begin to feel guilty when there is nothing to feel guilty about and you then ruminate on that guilt.[8]
    • For example, many first-time parents worry about going back to work because they think leaving their child with a nanny or in daycare will cause unknown damage to their child's mental and physical development. In reality, however, that's just not the case; in fact, most children develop normally irrespective of whether one or both parents work. There's nothing to really feel guilty about in this situation, but many people do, nevertheless. Put differently, this feeling of guilt doesn't produce anything but more irrational guilt.[9]
    • Unproductive guilt can have adverse effects on your cognitive well-being. For example, you may become overly self-critical, experience low self-esteem, and doubt your self-worth.[10]
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    Understand that sometimes we feel guilt for events out of our control. It is important to recognize that sometimes we feel guilty for things over which we had no control, such as a car crash or not arriving in time to say goodbye to a loved one before he passed. Sometimes people involved in such traumatic events overestimate their knowledge of the event and what they could have done. In other words, these individuals think they could or should have done something but, in reality, could not have.[11] These intense feelings of guilt can produce feelings of helplessness and a feeling of having lost control.[12]
    • For example, perhaps you feel guilty that you survived a car accident, while your friend was killed. This is known as survivor's guilt, which often emerges when we try to explain and make sense of traumatic events that we experience. In the case of serious guilt, you may want to seek professional help from a therapist who can help you work through your feelings of guilt.[13]
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    Reflect on your emotions and experiences. Engage in self-exploration to really get in touch with your feelings and to determine that it is guilt that you are experiencing and not another emotion. Studies using MRI scans of the brain have shown that guilt is an emotion that is distinct from shame or sadness. At the same time, these studies show that shame and sadness were often also present and correlate with guilt. Thus, it is important that you spend some time reflecting on your feelings in order to precisely pinpoint what you need to address.[14]
    • Define your thoughts, feelings, surroundings, and body sensations.[15] You can do this cognitively, through the practice of mindfulness, meaning that you just focus on what you're feeling in that moment without judgement or reaction.
    • Alternatively, you can write your feelings down in a journal. Writing out what you're experiencing can help you clarify those emotions as you try to put them into words.
    • Example: I am feeling overwhelmed today with guilt, and I also feel sad. I can't stop thinking about it. I can tell that I’m stressed because I have a tension headache, tension in my shoulders, and a nervous feeling in my stomach.
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    Clarify exactly what it is you feel guilt about. Think about what is causing these guilty feelings. Again, consider writing everything down to begin the process of working through the feeling of guilt.[16] Here are some examples:
    • "I let Fido out and he got run over by a car. I feel guilty that Fido is now dead because our whole family loved him so much."
    • "I didn't study for the exam and I got an F. I feel guilty that I let my parents down because they pay so much for me to go to school."
    • "I broke up with Bobby. I feel guilty that he hurts so much."
    • "My friend's mom passed away, and my mom is still alive and healthy. I feel guilty because my friend's life is in pieces and mine is perfect."
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    Accept guilt. You will have to accept that you cannot change the past or what has happened.[17] Acceptance also involves acknowledging difficulty and recognizing that you are able to withstand painful feelings in the present moment. This is the first stage in dealing appropriately with your guilt and moving forward. It is helpful to tell yourself affirming statements that emphasize acceptance and tolerance. Examples of these statements are:[18]
    • "I know dealing with guilt is hard, but for now I know I can endure."
    • "This is difficult, but I can accept what has happened and not fight or avoid this feeling - it is what it is."

Part 2
Making Amends

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    Make amends with anyone you have hurt. If your guilt stems from something you did that affected someone else negatively, the first step is to make amends with that person.[19] Although a sincere apology may not eliminate your feelings of guilt, it can start the process by providing a time for you to express how truly sorry you are.
    • Arrange a time to speak with the other person and offer a genuine apology for your actions or inactions. Make amends sooner, rather than later.[20]
    • Remember that just because you offer an apology doesn't mean that the other person has to accept it. You cannot control how the person will react or what he will do with what you've said. However, for yourself, realize that this is just the first stage of eliminating your guilt. Although the person may not accept your apology, you can feel proud of accepting and recognizing your guilt and responsibility and for actively showing remorse and demonstrating empathy.[21]
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    Reflect on the possibilities to modify your behavior. In cases where the guilt is productive, make a commitment to change your behavior to avoid a repeat of the situation and, in turn, the guilt you feel.[22] For example, you can't bring back your dog Fido, but you can make sure not to let future pets out of the house unless on a leash. Or, in the case where you failed an exam, you can make a commitment to dedicating more time to studying so that your parents' money isn't going to waste.
    • In some cases, you may not have any behavior to change, but you can still change your outlook for the better. For example, you can't bring back your friend's mother who passed away from cancer, but you can make sure that you offer your support to her as she grieves and make sure that you also let your own mother know how much she means to you.
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    Forgive yourself. With guilt, people often feel shame for something they did or did not do. Even once you've made amends with others, you may still hold onto the guilt inside yourself and engage in rumination. So, you also need to make amends with yourself. Learning to forgive yourself is an important tool to help restore your self-esteem that may have been damaged by guilt or shame and move on.
    • Trying writing a letter to yourself. Writing a letter to your younger or past-self can be a powerful emotional and cognitive tool to start the process of self-forgiveness.[23] Using a kind, loving tone, remind your other-self that our past often offers valuable learning opportunities and it builds empathy for others. Remind yourself that how you acted or what you did may have been all you knew to do in that moment. Consider the closing of the letter, or confession, a symbolic closing to the situation. You have accepted, confronted, and made amends for your guilt. It is now time to let it go.

Part 3
Engaging in Cognitive Restructuring

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    Turn guilt into gratitude. Guilt can be a productive tool to help you change behavior or build empathy, so transforming statements of guilt into statements of gratitude adds worth to the experiences and helps you alter how you view the past. It also aids the process of healing from guilt and turning unproductive guilt into something productive and tangible that can improve your life.[24]
    • Write down the guilt phrases/thoughts you have, and turn each into a gratitude statement. Guilt statements often start with "I should have...", "I could have...," "I can't believe I...," and "Why didn't I..." Turn these statements into phrases that emphasize what you are thankful for.
    • Example: Change "I should not have been so critical of my husband when we were together" into "I am grateful I can learn to be less critical in my future relationships."
    • Example: Change "Why didn’t I stop drinking? My drinking because my family to fall apart" into "I am grateful that I can learn to stop drinking with help and make amends with my family."
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    Offer daily affirmations. An affirmation is a positive statement meant to be encouraging and uplifting. Employing this method can help your restore your sense of self-worth and self-compassion, which is often eroded by shame and guilt. Build compassion every day by saying, writing, or thinking affirmations. Some examples of affirmations include:[25]
    • "I am a good person and deserve the best despite my past actions."
    • "I am not perfect. I make mistakes, but I can learn from my past."
    • "I'm human, just like everyone else."
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    Construct alternate meanings of guilt. The following statements can help you create alternative meaning for past actions and experiences that may be eliciting feelings of guilt. In turn, this process can help you change your thoughts in order to begin to eliminate the guilt. Try to remember the following when you fall into patterns of unproductive thinking or rumination about past deeds.[26]
    • Guilt can be an important learning tool for the future. Look for the lessons learned and know that life lessons make you wiser. For example, if you regret not treating your spouse with respect because you have seen first-hand that demeaning your partner can seriously harm a marriage, this knowledge will make you a wiser spouse in the future who has had to learn this lesson the hard way.
    • Feeling guilty about a past action can help build empathy because you recognize the harm that your past actions have caused, which can help you realize how you affect others. Remember that having the skill of empathy helps you to better understand the feelings of others. For instance, if you feel guilty about yelling at a friend after heavy drinking, you may be better able to recognize how your actions made this friend feel.
    • You can not change what happened in the past, but you can choose how your past affects your present and future. For example, you can't change that failed an exam, but you can make choice in the future that will not lead you down this same path.
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    Realize the pitfalls of perfection. Striving for perfection in any one part of our lives is an unrealistic expectation. Mistakes are a part of life and are there to help us learn.[27] Engage in activities that are positive and affirming, and where you have opportunities to do good. Allow yourself to see how the same mistake that made you feel guilty has now resulted in your being a better, more conscientious person.[28]
    • Rumination of negative, guilty feelings can lead to inappropriate levels of shame and self-loathing. If you do find yourself ruminating on your guilt to the point that this is affecting to your mental health and daily functioning, you should consult a mental health professional who can work with you on these cognitive restructuring strategies.

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Categories: Guilt and Forgiveness