Guilt has an incredible way of popping up even when we’re barely doing anything at all.
Most of us learn guilt throughout normal childhood development. Guilt clues us in when we’ve stepped outside the boundaries of our core values. It makes us take responsibility when we’ve done something wrong and helps us to develop a greater sense of self-awareness. The feeling of guilt forces us to examine how our behavior affects others and make changes so that we don’t make the same mistake again.
How can we learn to deal with guilt — accepting it when it is appropriate and letting it go when it’s unnecessary?
1. Is this guilt appropriate and, if so, what is its purpose?
Guilt works best to help us grow and mature when our behavior has been offensive or hurtful to others or ourselves. If we feel guilty for saying something offensive to another person, or for focusing on our careers with an 80-hour work-week over our family, that’s a warning sign with a purpose: change your behavior or you will push away your friends or family. We can still choose to ignore our guilt then, but then we do so at our own risk. This is known as “healthy” or “appropriate” guilt because it serves a purpose in trying to help redirect our moral or behavioral compass.
The problem arises when we don’t need to reexamine our behavior or makes changes. For example, a lot of first-time mothers feel badly about going back to work part-time, fearful it may cause unknown damage to their child’s normal development. However, that’s simply not the case in most situations and most children have a normal, healthy development even when both parents work. There’s nothing to feel guilty about, yet we still do. This is known as “unhealthy” or “inappropriate” guilt because it serves no rational purpose.
If you’re feeling guilty for eating five chocolate bars in a row, that’s your brain’s way of trying to get the message to you about a behavior you probably already recognize is a little extreme. Such behavior may be self-destructive and ultimately harmful to your health and well-being. So the rational purpose of this guilt is simply to try and convince you to change this behavior.
2. Makes changes, instead of wallowing in guilt.
If your guilt is for a specific and rational purpose — e.g., it’s healthy guilt — take action to fix the problem behavior. While many of us are gluttons for self-punishment, ongoing guilt weighs us down as we try and move forward in life. It’s easy enough to apologize to someone whom we’ve offended by a careless remark. It’s a little more challenging to not only recognize how your 80-hour-a-week career may be harming your family, but to also change your work schedule (assuming that there were legitimate reasons for working 80-hours a week in the first place).
Healthy guilt is telling us we need to do something different in order to repair relationships important to us (or our own self-esteem). Unhealthy guilt’s purpose, on the other hand, is only to make us feel badly.
While sometimes we already know the lesson guilt is trying to teach us, it will return time and time again until we’ve actually learned the lesson fully. It can be frustrating, but it seems to be the way guilt works for most people. The sooner we “learn the lesson” — e.g., make amends, work to not engage in the same hurtful behavior in the future, etc. — the sooner the guilt will disappear. If successful, it will never return for that issue again.
3. Accept that you did something wrong, but then move on.
If you did something wrong or hurtful, you will have to accept that you cannot change the past. But you can make amends for your behavior, if and when it’s appropriate. Do so, apologize, or make-up for the inappropriate behavior in a timely manner, but then let it go. The more we focus on believing we need to do something more, the more it will continue to bother us and interfere with our relationships with others.
Guilt is usually very situational. That means we get into a situation, we do something inappropriate or hurtful, and then we feel badly for a time. Either the behavior wasn’t so bad or time passes, and we feel less guilty. If we recognize the problem behavior and take action sooner rather than later, we’ll feel better about things (and so will the other person) and the guilt will be alleviated. Obsessing about it, however, and not taking any type of compensatory behavior (such as apologizing, or changing one’s negative behavior) keeps the bad feelings going. Accept and acknowledge the inappropriate behavior, make your amends, and then move on.
4. Learn from mistakes.
Guilt’s purpose isn’t to make us feel bad just for the sake of it. Legitimate guilt is trying to get our attention so that we can learn something from the experience. If we learn from our behavior, we’ll be less likely to do it again in the future. If I’ve accidentally said something insulting to another person, my guilt is telling me I should (a) apologize to the person and (b) think a little more before I open my mouth.
If your guilt isn’t trying to correct an actual mistake you made in your behavior, it’s unhealthy guilt and there’s not a whole lot you need to learn. Instead of learning how to change that behavior, a person can instead try to understand why a simple behavior most people wouldn’t feel guilty about is causing them to feel guilt. For instance, I felt guilty for spending some time playing a game during regular work hours. But, since I work for myself, I don’t really keep “regular work hours.” It’s just hard for me to change that mindset after years of working for others.
5. Recognize that no one is perfect.
Not even our friends or family members who appear to lead perfect, guilt-free lives. Striving for perfection in any part of our lives is a recipe for failure, since it can never be attained.
We all make mistakes and many of us go down a path in our lives that can make us feel guilty later on, when we finally realize our mistake. The key, however, is to realize the mistake and accept that you’re only human. Don’t engage in days, weeks or months of self-blame — battering your self-esteem because you should’ve known, should’ve acted differently, or should’ve been an ideal person. You’re not, and neither am I. That’s just life.
Guilt is one of those emotions that we feel is telling us something important. Be aware that not every emotion, and certainly not every guilty feeling, is a rational one that has a purpose. Focus on the guilt that causes loved ones or friends harm. And remember to be skeptical the next time you feel guilty – is it trying to teach you something rational and helpful about your behavior, or is it just an emotional, irrational response to a situation? The answer to that question will be your first step to helping you better cope with guilt in the future.
Want to learn more?
Read more about guilt and regret in Psychological Self-Help, the free online self-help book by our partner and advisory board member, Dr. Clay Tucker-Ladd.
This article has been updated from the original version, which was originally published here on November 27, 2007.