I have a confession to make: in college, I cheated on my first serious boyfriend, and the guilt haunted me for years. At the time, I didn’t know why I cheated on him; I really cared about him and I really liked our relationship. After it happened, though, I felt like a total jerk and was consumed by guilt…and that guilt had major consequences. After we broke up, I dated a bunch of men who didn’t treat me well. They lied, cheated, got possessive and didn’t show up for the important events in my life. Yet, I kept telling myself that this was the kind of guy I deserved because, hey, look what I did to my college boyfriend. Guilt kept me trapped in a downward spiral, and I didn’t know what to do to stop feeling guilty and start treating myself – and others – right.
I know that I’m not the only one who has been negatively affected by guilt, either. We’ve all been there: you’re having a great day, kicking butt at the gym, impressing your boss at work, even meeting a friend for lunch, when you say or do something that makes you feel so guilty, you want to climb into bed and hide under the covers for at least six months.
Sometimes we get that hollow feeling in our gut because of big issues or events in our lives, like breaking someone’s heart or losing an important client at work because you weren’t as prepared as you should’ve been.
Nowadays, though, we often feel guilty for much smaller things, like “bothering” the waiter by asking for another water refill or “ruining a friend’s night” because you needed to vent about a stressful week at work. In fact, these guilty moments are often so small, they fly by without us even taking the time to process what we’re feeling guilty for.
The problem with that? Guilt can be a really ugly emotion that not only magnifies what could be a minor blip in your day, but also hurts you in the long run. After all, who are you serving by hating yourself or by beating yourself up?
What is Guilt Good for Anyway?
In fact, guilt is often a pretty useless emotion because we typically get stuck beating ourselves up instead moving on with our lives like the badasses we really are.
Now, you’re probably thinking: “But I did [insert your “horrible” deed here]. How can I not feel bad?”
I’m glad you asked…and the answer lies in changing how you think about guilt and the actions that are making you feel guilty in the first place.
If you’re feeling guilty, should you try to improve whatever behavior triggered those feelings? Of course.
Should you apologize if you acted in a way that makes you feel bad or hurt someone else in the process? Yes (most times, anyway).
But should you keep beating yourself up so much that you feel paralyzed and unable to let go of guilt? No!
So what can you do when you feel your throat clogging up and your stomach churning with G-U-I-L-T? I like to keep this quote from author Gretchen Rubin in mind:
“Negative emotions like loneliness, envy, and guilt have an important role to play in a happy life; they’re big, flashing signs that something needs to change.”
When you adopt this kind of mindset, guilt isn’t a dead-end emotion that you feel and just let consume you. Instead, it’s an emotion that you can use as a guide to lead you back to aligned action.
Step One For Letting Go of Guilt
So how can you go from feeling guilty to creating empowering changes? I use a two-step process to work through guilt.
Step 1: Ask yourself a simple question: If I saw my best friend do the same action that I’m feeling guilty about, would I think that they should feel guilty?
If the answer is no, then guess what. You shouldn’t be feeling guilty either! Most likely, you’re just being too hard on yourself. In this scenario, the best “solution” to your guilt is actually just treating yourself the same way you would treat your best friend: with lots of forgiveness and kindness.
So, for example, maybe you are kicking yourself for bringing store-bought deli sandwiches to an office party rather than the infamous homemade subs you promised to make. If this were a story about your best friend, would you berate her for “going the easy route” or would you point out that people still ate all of the sandwiches and no one else seemed to remember your original promise? I’m guessing you’d tell your friend to not even worry about it…so why should you tell yourself anything different?
The next time you find yourself feeling guilty over something you’d never expect your bestie to feel bad about, take a step back, objectively evaluate just how “horrible” your faux passé actually was, and give yourself some slack.
Step Two for Letting Go of Guilt
But what if you ask yourself that same question and reply, “Why yes, I would expect my best friend to feel pretty dang guilty.” In that case, you need to move onto step two. Here, you have to spend even more time thinking about the action you feel guilty about. Rather than just evaluating how “bad” it really was, though, you need to also ask yourself why you did it in the first place.
After all, as much as we would love to be able to say that splurging on the $250 purse you don’t need or snapping at your co-worker was totally beyond your control, humans rarely do anything without a reason or cause.
You shopped too much for a reason.
You ate too much for a reason.
You cheated for a reason.
You lost your cool for a reason.
You stopped going to work for a reason.
Of course, doing these things “for a reason” doesn’t automatically mean that you are aware of that reason! That’s why you need to set aside time to intentionally reflect about what triggered the behavior you’re feeling guilty over now. Don’t tell me you did it because you’re “a selfish asshole” either. Like we’ve already discussed, beating yourself up doesn’t help you let go of guilt or move forward. It just causes paralysis and inaction.
Instead, figure out the real reason behind your behavior. Typically, that “real reason” is a need that all decent human beings have, but you weren’t meeting. So think back to the moment where your actions or behavior went wrong. Did you need safety? Love? Understanding? Connection with others? Sleep? The list can go on and on, but “being a selfish asshole” isn’t on it!
I know how scary it can feel to dig deep into the motivations behind your bad behavior. However, I also know that this step is integral to letting go of guilt for good. Remember the college boyfriend I cheated on? When I got real with myself and asked myself why I cheated, I realized it was because I was a hard core introvert and had very low confidence in social situations. As a freshman in a big, new college, I desperately needed to build new relationships. But in the highly social party scene, I didn’t know how to connect with people, so my anxiety and helplessness peaked. I really believed that the only way to get new people to like me was to give them something, and men seemed to want to hookup. Once I realized that this was the “real reason” behind my behavior, I focused on building my confidence and becoming aware of my real value in relationships. Then I could forgive myself and finally get into the kind of relationships I deserved.
You can turn your guilt into intentional healing, too! Once you figure out the unmet need – or the real reason why you did that guilt-causing behavior – you can move onto showing yourself some compassion, like I discuss in-depth here. Equally important, you need to take action to meet that need. If you snapped at your co-worker because you were stressed, try to schedule extra chill-time (like a relaxing bubble bath or a carefree night out) into your week. If you ate too many sweets last night because you felt lonely, reach out to old friends and ask if they’d like to go out for dinner sometime soon and catch up. I also offer a breakthrough session that can quickly and effectively move you through the process of transforming guilt into empowered action. Together, we’ll identify the unmet need that drove your behavior and develop the specific strategy to get that need met, stopping the cycle of bad behavior and guilt in its tracks. You can learn more here.
The Power Is In Your Hands
As soon as you know what unmet needs are actually causing your “bad behavior,” you’ll not only be able to get to the root of the problem but you’ll also be able to live without the guilt caused by those missteps. By applying my two-step approach to tackling guilt – you can feel confident that you’re a DOER and that you won’t need to rely on the undesirable actions you used before.
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