Guilt has to be one of the worst feelings. Part of that sinking sensation likely comes from the fact that we can't go back in time and change whatever it is we're feeling bad about. It's why learning how to let go of guilt and forgive yourself can be such an important life skill to foster.
And not all guilt is bad. In an exchange over email, clinical psychologist and YouTuber Ali Mattu, Ph.D., tells me, "Guilt is a critical emotion for social relationships. Guilt seems to be related to empathy and can prevent us from doing something that might hurt someone else or break important societal rules. If we do something that makes us feel guilty, that experience can serve as an important lesson that keeps us from doing it again in the future." Basically, guilt can be an extremely important part of our emotional and social development.
However, that doesn't mean guilt is always a good thing. Dr. Mattu also notes that, "Guilt can become a problem if it is keeping you from living your life. Too much guilt can cloud your thoughts, lead you to feel significant distress, and make it hard to go through your daily activities."
Below, you'll find Dr. Mattu's five most crucial tips on how to release feelings of guilt.
1. Understand It
"Before you can let go of your guilt, you have to understand it." Mattu says. "That means facing your guilt, experiencing the thoughts it brings up, and identifying the things you did that led you to feel guilt. People usually discover they feel guilty because they did something they believe was wrong."
2. Talk It Out
Mattu also notes that, "Thinking alone might cause you to get stuck ruminating on what happened. That’s why talking to someone you trust can be helpful. A friend or loved one can provide you with a more objective perspective on what occurred." I personally always find talking it out to be an extremely important part of the process, as it allows me to start taking responsibility for whatever I'm feeling bad about, while also usually getting some supportive words from a friend.
3. Find Compassion For Yourself
"Once you have a better perspective, it becomes easier to find compassion for yourself," says Mattu. "There are often important reasons why we do what we do. This doesn’t mean excusing what we’ve done, but it does mean incorporating the large context of what was happening in your life during the situation that caused you to feel guilt."
I also find this to be a super important part of the overall process. There have been things in life I've done that I still wish I hadn't, but I now understand why I did them given what was happening in my life at the time and given the feelings I was experiencing, and that makes it that much easier to come to terms with it.
4. Make Amends
"If you are still struggling with guilt, it might be time to make amends," Mattu says. "This could mean confessing what happened, sharing the guilt you are experiencing, apologizing, and discussing what you can do to make this situation better." However, he also notes that. "if you are going to confess, research suggests you should confess completely — only confessing part of what happened can keep you feeling guilty and maybe even ashamed or anxious."
5. Talk To A Professional
And finally, if you're still finding yourself unable to let go of feelings of guilt, even after understanding your past actions and perhaps even apologizing for them, Mattu suggests you talk it out with a trained mental health professional. This can be especially helpful if you're someone who's prone to feelings of guilt when they might not even be deserved. "Treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy can teach you skills to help you get unstuck with your thoughts, learn to experience your emotions in a health way, and life your life in a way that’s consistent with your values," Mattu says.
Feeling guilty is never fun, and it can truly put a cloud over all other parts of our life. However, there are absolutely ways to relieve those feelings — you just need to be willing to face your actions and proactively work through your emotions.
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