Guilt is no doubt one of the more difficult and complex emotions to deal with. However, you can overcome (or at least lessen) this all-too-prominent emotion. A definition of guilt is useful here, too. I would define it as feeling bad about something we feel we should or shouldn't have done.
SHOULD is the operative word here. As I discuss more later on this page, 'should' and 'should not' are concepts that fuel guilt, and it's important that we be conscious of these thoughts when they come up.
How do you do this? As with many things, a vital first step is to take an honest look at the situation that you feel is causing your feelings. Emphasis on the word HONEST. We must be honest with ourselves in order to effectively address our guilt. We humans are very, very good at rationalizing things in order to justify what we do. If you are doing that in this situation, stop and take a more careful look at your actions and thoughts.
Ask yourself this question: Do I feel negative or mixed emotions about my role in the situation?
If you do, take a closer look. What thoughts are you having along with these emotions? Do your actions conflict with any of your values? I'll talk more about values later.
Consider journaling about this situation. I’m amazed at how often writing things down brings people insight that they didn’t gain by thinking it through in their minds. Externalizing it onto paper, a word processor or a Google document can do wonders for insight! More on journaling here.
In any case, it is of the utmost importance that you honestly examine any negative or mixed emotions that may be connected with a situation in which you find yourself feeling guilty.
This is where professional help can be very important. Often, an objective viewpoint can help greatly. If you find yourself dealing with feelings of remorse in similar types of situations over and over, it may be time to see a mental health counselor.
Something that we often overlook when considering guilt is our internal value system. It is very important to examine our values from time to time, particularly if guilt plays a prominent role in our emotional reality. One way to do this is to do a simply value inventory. The founders of Motivational Interviewing--a wonderful, evidence-based counseling model that has helped people for more than three decades--created a “Values Card Sort” that is simple, practical, and very enlightening. Click here to check this out!
If conflicted feelings are prominent in your life, and/or if you have any important decisions coming up soon, this is an exercise that is well worth the time. Most people find that this exercise takes 30-45 minutes, and tell me that the insight they gain from it is tremendous.
If you prefer not to do this exercise, it is still important that you consider whether or not your actions (especially any that may be connected with guilty feelings) are consistent with your values. DO give this some thought, because if your actions are in conflict with deeply-held values, guilt and several other unwanted emotions--anxiety, self-loathing--will almost always be the result.
To learn more about the crucial role of values, click here for the personal values page.
In short, your feelings are there for a reason. If that reason is unhealthy thought patterns, there are ways to address this. In particular, the CBT model can be most helpful in dealing with this issue. However, guilt may also exist due to value conflict. If, after your self-examination, you feel that you did do something wrong, it’s time to consider asking for forgiveness. Sometimes trauma survivors carry guilt about things that they know (intellectually speaking) are not their fault, but are still felt in the gut. More on emotional trauma on this page.
If you feel that you did something you regret, or didn’t do something that you feel you should have done, ask yourself if you need to forgive yourself or ask someone else for forgiveness. Whether this is writing a letter, talking with someone directly, or journaling/introspecting, asking forgiveness with an honest heart can help us move forward and become ‘unstuck’ from guilty feelings. A fantastic resource on the powerful concept of forgiveness is a book by Nobel Peace Prize-winning Desmond Tutu entitled “The Book of Forgiving”. This is a fantastic and easy read that invites the reader to learn from others who have struggled with and overcome their own remorse or anger in being able to forgive, ask for forgiveness, and move forward in life. The book also discusses what forgiveness is and is not, and outlines a very practical, four-step approach to forgiveness.
Once again, counseling is often very helpful in this process. If you feel stuck, feel free to contact me for a consult. If you have questions about the counseling process, click here for a more in-depth description of what to expect during mental health counseling.
Another thing to consider when thinking about guilt is your thought patterns. Once again, the Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Model can be very helpful in this regard. If you find that you tend to think in all-or-nothing categories, or that you are doing a lot of “Shoulds” and “Musts” in your daily thinking, then it’s time to take a closer look at the content of your thoughts. These types of thoughts often lead to guilty feelings. This link can be very helpful to you in identifying and changing destructive thought patterns. Many people find that a great deal of their guilt can be lessened by examining and modifying certain thought patterns. Check out this link for more specific ways to modify your unhelpful thought patterns.
It certainly takes some work (and sometimes help from a professional) but it’s well worth it. You think all the time. Why not think healthy thoughts?
What is the difference? Desmond Tutu puts it this way: Guilt is feeling badly about something you have done. Shame is feeling badly about who you are. This is an importance difference. Often times, trauma survivors feel a great deal of shame. Counseling can often help in these situations. If you find that you are feeling a significant amount of shame in your life, I would strongly suggest going to a counselor. Help is available, there are ways to overcome shame.