Guilt is good. Yes! Guilt actually encourages people to have more empathy for others, to take corrective action, and to improve themselves. Self-forgiveness following guilt is self-essential to esteem, which is key to enjoying life and relationships. Yet, for many, self-acceptance remains elusive because of unhealthy guilt.
Guilt may be an unrelenting source of pain. You might believe that you should feel guilty and condemn yourself not once, but repeatedly. Guilt also may simmer in your unconscious. Either way, this kind of guilt is insidious and self-destructive and can sabotage your goals.
Guilt causes anger and resentment, not only at yourself, but toward others in order to justify your actions. Anger, resentment, and guilt sap your energy, cause depression and illness, and prevent success, pleasure, and fulfilling relationships. They keep you stuck in the past and prevent you from moving forward.
You may feel guilty not only for your actions, but also for your thoughts — for wishing someone pain, misfortune, or even death; for feelings such as anger, lust, or greed; for lack of feelings, such as unreciprocal love or friendship, or for not grieving the loss of someone close. Although irrational, you might feel guilty for someone else’s thoughts, attributes, feelings, and actions. It’s not unusual for people to feel guilty for leaving their faith or not meeting their parents’ expectations.
People often judge themselves based upon the blame or false accusations emanating from others, which they believe to be true. For example, a woman projects her selfishness onto her husband. He believes it, not realizing it is she who is selfish (an attribute). She might blame her insecurity (feeling) on him, claiming he’s flirting, uncaring, or indifferent. A man might blame his anger (feeling) or mistake (action) on his partner, and she believes him and feels guilty.
Because of their low self-esteem, it’s common for codependents to take the blame for others’ behavior. A spouse might accept her husband’s blame and feel guilty for his drinking or addiction. Victims of abuse or sexual assault frequently feel guilt and shame, despite the fact that they were victims and it’s the perpetrator who is culpable. When it comes to divorce, those initiating it often feel guilty, even though responsibility for their marital problem is shared or was primarily due to their partner.
Guilt should be distinguished from shame. Shame causes you to feel inferior, inadequate, or bad about who you are versus what you did. When irrational and not absolved, guilt can lead to shame. Shame isn’t constructive. Instead of enhancing empathy and self-improvement, it has the opposite effect. It leads to greater self-preoccupation and undermines both the self and relationships.
If you already have low self-esteem or have issues around shame (most people do), it may be difficult to concentrate on what it is you feel guilty about. However, this is necessary in order to get past it. Rationalizing or brushing it under the rug to avoid self-examination may help temporarily, but will not achieve self-forgiveness. Alternatively, beating yourself up prolongs guilt and shame and damages your self-esteem; accepting responsibility and taking remedial action improves it. Here are suggested steps you can take. I refer to actions, but they apply equally to thoughts or feelings you feel guilty about:
- If you’ve been rationalizing your actions, take responsibility. “Okay, I did (or said) it.”
- Write a story about what happened, including how you felt about yourself and others involved before, during, and after.
- Analyze what your needs were at that time, and whether they were being met. If not, why not?
- What were your motives? What or who was the catalyst for your behavior?
- Does the catalyst remind you of something from your past? Write a story about it, and include dialogue and your feelings.
- How were your feelings and mistakes handled growing up? Were they forgiven, judged, or punished? Who was hard on you? Were you made to feel ashamed?
- Evaluate the standards by which you’re judging yourself. Are they your values, your parents’, your friends’, your spouse’s, or those of your faith? Do you need their approval? It’s pointless to try to live up to someone else’s expectations. Others’ desires and values have more to do with them. They may never approve, or you may sacrifice yourself and your happiness seeking approval.
- Identify the values and beliefs that in fact governed you during the event? For example, “Adultery is okay if my spouse never finds out.” Be honest, and decide which values you agree with.
- Did your actions reflect your true values? If not, trace your beliefs, thoughts, and emotions that led to your actions. Think about what may have led you to abandon your values. Notice that you hurt yourself when you violate your values. This actually causes more harm than disappointing someone else.
- How did your actions affect you and others? Whom did you hurt? Include yourself on the list.
- Think of ways to make amends. Take the action, and make them. For example, if the person is dead, you can write a letter of apology. You can also decide to act differently in the future.
- Looking back, what healthier beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and actions would have led to a more desirable result?
- Do you expect perfection? Has this improved your overall well-being? Perfection is illusory and a manifestation of underlying shame.
- Would you forgive someone else for the same actions? Why would you treat yourself differently? How does it benefit you to continue to punish yourself?
- Remorse is healthy and leads to corrective action. Think about what you’ve learned from your experience and how you might act differently today.
- Write yourself an empathic letter of understanding, appreciation, and forgiveness.
- Repeat on a daily basis words of kindness and forgiveness from your letter, such as, “I’m innocent,” “I forgive myself,” and “I love myself.”
- Share honestly with others what you did. Don’t share with those who might judge you. If appropriate, talk about what happened in a 12-Step group. Secrecy prolongs guilt and shame.
Realize that you may forgive yourself and still believe you were at fault, just as you might forgive someone else even though you think the person was in the wrong. You can have regret for what you did yet accept that you’re human and made mistakes. Perhaps, you did your best, given your circumstances, awareness, maturity, and experience at the time. This is a healthy, humble attitude.
If you continue to have difficulties with self-forgiveness, it’s helpful to see a counselor. You may be suffering from shame, which predisposes you to self-loathing, guilt, and feeling bad about yourself. This can be healed in therapy. See my posts on self-love and nurturing, and get my ebook, 10 Steps to Self-Esteem.