7 Ways To Move On From Guilt, Even If It Seems Impossible
Guilt is one of the worst feelings in the world, and at times it can linger well after the situation that caused it is long over. It's the reason there are countless books and articles out there about tips for dealing with guilt, and why it's the main focus of entire branches of psychology.
Doctorate of Psychology John Grohol and founder of PsychCentral.com said that, "Guilt is an emotional warning sign that most people learn through their normal childhood social development. Its purpose is to let us know when we’ve done something wrong, to help us develop a better sense of our behavior and how it affects ourselves and others. It prompts us to re-examine our behavior so that we don’t end up making the same mistake twice."
However, Grohol also noted that while a certain amount of guilt is healthy, sometimes guilt can be triggered by things that don't merit it, and instead of helping us examine our behavior, just ends up hurting our self-esteem and ability to be happy.
If you struggle with letting go of feelings of guilt — whether earned or not — you're absolutely not alone. Most of us have all been there and continue to harbor feelings of shame or guilt about things long in the past. In the spirit of moving forward, here are seven ways to move on from guilty feelings.
1. Address It Sooner Rather Than Later
According to Grohol, the sooner we address what's making us guilty, the less time it has to weigh us down. If the guilt is legitimate, and making amends is relatively easy (i.e. apologizing for a careless or hurtful comment, or letting someone know you're sorry you missed their birthday) then we should minimize the self-punishment phase and allow ourselves to move forward by apologizing.
2. Remember, No One Is Perfect
Grohol also stressed to remember that absolutely no one is perfect, and we all make mistakes."Don’t engage in days, weeks or months of self-blame or 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," Grohol said. Once you're tried your best to make amends, try to let it go and not be so hard on yourself.
3. Don't Keep It To Yourself
In an article on guilt for Real Simple, Edward Hallowell, MD, author of Dare to Forgive: The Power of Letting Go & Moving On, said talking out your guilt or the incident that caused it with a friend can be extremely therapeutic. “Secrecy is the intensifier of guilt,” Hallowell said. “Once you’ve bared something that you find troubling and discover that your friend isn’t nearly as shocked as you thought she would be, the guilt begins to drain away and you feel better.”
4. Give Yourself A Reality Check
In the same Real Simple article, Margaret Clark, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Yale University, stressed to make sure your guilt is actually legitimate and not coming from a standard or expectation placed on you earlier in life, or even over something that isn't upsetting anyone else. “Worrying about your failings as a mother because you didn’t bake homemade cupcakes when the child doesn’t even care is guilt gone wrong," Clark said.
5. Write It Down
Karen Lang, shamanic healer and contributor to lifestyle site Tiny Buddha, suggested writing your feelings of guilt and shame down in a journal when you're having trouble getting past them. Write down all of your thoughts and feelings honestly, then "ask yourself some questions, like: Do I need to hold onto these thoughts and feelings anymore? How would changing these thoughts or feelings make a difference in my life? How is guilt holding me back," she said.
Once you've done this, she recommended writing down some new goals and affirmations to think of in place of the negative ones weighing your down.
6. Move A Little
“Working out is like hitting the reset button on your brain,” said Hallowell. “It’s hard to exercise and feel guilty at the same time.” And while this might not feel like a permanent fix, it is definitely helpful for those more minor guilty feelings that take a day or two to go away, like making a joke at a party that you wish you hadn't.
7. Remember Your Self-Preservation Matters
In an article on talking yourself out of unnecessary guilt for Psychology Today, Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D, said to always remember that your self-preservation matters. Maybe you couldn't make it to your friend's party because you were just too swamped that week, or couldn't make it to your family member's 30th because airline tickets were just too expensive. You are entitled to look out for your self-interest just as much as anyone else, and sometimes that means saying no or disappointing others. Remind yourself that your actions are valid, and don't let others guilt-trip you into believing otherwise.
While guilt can often help us learn a valuable lesson, other times it weighs on us way longer than it should, affecting our self-esteem and our ability to move on. If you're having trouble letting go, try to remember that everyone has been there and no one is perfect, and that there are definitely solid tips out there that can help.