Guilt. Rarely has one small word been so widely misunderstood. Guilt is frequently viewed as a virtue, as a high sense of responsibility and morality. The truth, however, is that guilt is the greatest destroyer of emotional energy. It leaves you feeling immobilized in the present by something that has already occurred.
Now don’t misunderstand me: Human beings need to have a conscience. According to Webster’s Third Dictionary a conscience is “the sense of right or wrong within the individual.” Without a conscience we would have no compunction about hurting one another, and the world would be less safe. When your conscience tells you that you have done something wrong, it is important to face it, make amends and learn from your mistake. Staying consumed with guilt, however, will keep you from moving forward in a positive and productive way.
Myths about guilt abound. Two of the most common myths are:
- Guilt is a valuable exercise from which you will learn and grow.
- If you consume yourself with guilt you won’t make the same mistake again.
Here are the facts: Reflecting on past behavior and learning from it is instructive. Unending remorse about past mistakes serves no useful purpose. In fact, excessive guilt is one of the biggest destroyers of self-esteem, individuality, creativity and personal development. Self-flagellation about a previous wrong only increases the chance that you will make the same mistake again. Intense recrimination over wrongdoing may make you feel absolved of guilt. This sense of absolution almost gives you permission to do the same thing all over again — illogical but true.
Let me share with you some of the most common “guilt triggers”:
- Not always being there for your children, partner or parents.
- Saying “no” at work or at home.
- Taking time for yourself.
Do any of these sound familiar? For many of us, excessive guilt is a bad habit. It is a knee-jerk reaction to situations like those listed above. And our response is so automatic that we feel unable to change it. With hard work and attention, however, many of my patients have learned how to avoid falling into what I call the “guilt trap.” Stay out of this bottomless pit by implementing the following steps:
- Review the action or event over which you feel guilt.
- Was the action appropriate or acceptable under the circumstances?
- If so, let go of the situation and refuse to think about it further. Go for a walk, call a friend or become absorbed in something enjoyable. Do anything but rethink the situation.
- If your action was inappropriate, is there something you can do to correct it or to make amends? Now take this step and realize you have done all you can to rectify the situation.
- What have you learned from this experience that will be helpful in the future?
If you have taken these steps and you still can’t forget your mistake — perceived or real — do something paradoxical. Force yourself to feel as guilty as possible for a full minute. Set your stopwatch. Doing this will either make you sick and tired of thinking about the situation or point out the absurdity of self-recriminations.
Remember that the past cannot be changed, no matter how you feel about it. Excessive guilt will neither alter the past nor make you a better person. By implementing the above steps, however, you will learn from your mistakes and not be obsessed with them.