Undoubtedly, the feeling of guilt serves an important role, letting us learn from our mistakes and making us more compassionate and cooperative, too. But it has a flip side as well, especially for the perfectionists among us, who are constantly reevaluating and often feel tormented by the thought that they’re just not good enough. Sounds familiar? We’re sure it does, as the vast majority of people experience guilt all the time, with the rare exception being some individuals with a damaged prefrontal cortex and psychopaths, who can be completely unfamiliar with this emotion.
So yes, feeling guilty is part of being human, but sometimes, the regret we feel is irrational and persistent. For when that happens, don’t let guilt get the best of you and consider these 4 thoughts that may help you deal with this negative emotion:
1. Is It Possible to Repair the Damage?
If you’re in a cycle of perpetual guilt and you wish you could somehow make things better, first see if it’s actually possible to do so. In some cases, you can undo or compensate for the damage you’ve inflicted, but in others, you simply can’t erase your past mistakes and the damage cannot be undone.
If there is nothing you can do to fix the situation that’s making you feel guilty, take it as a life lesson and avoid similar situations in the future, but don’t beat yourself up for it, as that serves no purpose. If, however, you think you can improve the situation, focus on those things you can do right here, right now, and the sense of guilt will surely subside once you prove to yourself that you’ve done everything in your power to fix your mistake.
2. Is It Even Your Fault?
Now, this is a big one, as many people actually feel guilty about things that aren’t in their control at all, starting from small things like being just a few minutes late to work to more serious matters. One of the most extreme, and yet not uncommon examples of irrational guilt is the so-called ‘survivor’s guilt’, which is when surviving victims of tragic events, such as a car accident, for example, feel guilty for having survived the event when others didn’t.
Needless to say, victims have no rational reason to feel guilty, as who does or doesn’t survive a tragic event is mainly a matter of chance, but they still do. Rational thinking, focusing on the much needed and justified grieving process and your own recovery will help you lift the sense of unwarranted guilt off of your shoulders.
3. Who Is Telling You to Feel Guilty?
As strange as it may seem, a feeling of guilt can be inherited. In fact, we often feel regret for our own actions because we were told to do so. If you’re feeling really guilty for eating that extra cookie or slice of pie, think if it’s you or societal standards that are making you feel ashamed of yourself.
Both our parents, our teachers, and even our spouses, coworkers and friends often have a lot of expectations from us, as does the society we live in at large, and if we’re particularly prone to feeling guilty for not meeting these expectations, this can become a problem. If this is about you, try to distance yourself from other people's beliefs and standards that were forced upon you and cancel those that don’t serve you.
4. Not All Guilt Is Bad
Believe it or not, guilt can be useful in building self-discipline and learning. Yes, we know, this is an article about getting rid of guilt, not embracing it, but we find it’s just as important to be able to distinguish between “useful” and “harmful” guilt, as it is to know how to get rid of this negative emotion.
You may be thinking, how on earth could guilt benefit me? To understand how, let’s get back to the cookie and pie example. Although, conceptually, you shouldn’t blame yourself for objectively minor things like extra dessert, in a context where you made a rule for yourself not to eat any extra dessert for a month, and then you broke that rule, guilt is exactly the kind of nagging, annoying feeling that will help you not to make that mistake again.
This way, regret will make you less likely to make future mistakes and will teach you self-discipline in important matters, as long as it’s you who decides what those are.