Dealing with guilt
Updated: Mar 28
If you think back on your life so far, there might be a thing or two that you have done that you regret. There is a saying that goes, “to err is human,” normalizing that as imperfect beings, we will make mistakes along the way. Some mistakes have more significant impacts than others. While making mistakes is part of the human condition, and mistakes bring learned lessons, guilt can also be a part of making mistakes. Guilt and regret can cause emotional distress, and dealing with those emotions can be challenging.
Regret is an adverse emotion that focuses on past actions and what could have changed to produce a more desirable outcome. While there is no time machine invented (yet) to go back to fix past mistakes, there is an opportunity to think about what was done, learn from said mistakes, and make different decisions in the future.
Understanding the context and the responsibility of one’s actions helps people process what happened and what can be learned.
Without minimizing consequences, without being closed off to changing it is important to learn to deal with feelings of guilt or regret.
So how does one deal with the distress of guilt and regret?
Give your guilt a name. Not as in “Bob” or “Suzy,” but acknowledge it. Guilt. Shame.
Think of the reason this emotion is present: I feel guilty because…
Be open to the emotions that accompany these feelings: frustration, sadness, anger… etc
Sit with those feelings with curiosity. Curiosity allows for exploration without judgment. Curiosity also brings about learning.
It is important to explore the source of guilt and regret. What happened that led up to the regrettable decision or action? It is important to own up to one’s responsibility and be mindful of the things that are outside one’s responsibility.
Guilt often stems from failed or unfulfilled expectations set by oneself or others.
Other times, guilt stems from a realization of bad behavior. Differentiating the source can be helpful to learn and move forward.
How do we move forward?
Apologize and make amends if possible: It takes a lot of vulnerability and sincerity to apologize with the intention of repairing. Acknowledging one’s role without making excuses and showing remorse can go a long way.
Commit to change: Apologies without changed behavior lead to toxic cycles. How can you learn from the situation and do things differently in the future? If you do not know, is there a resource you can turn to? What did your past reveal about you that you recognize you need to work on?
Practice gratitude: This seems silly, but appreciation and gratitude can help you reflect on the opportunities to learn and self-correct. Gratitude is a healthy way to view the benefits of learning from difficult moments.
Regret and guilt can be mitigated by the forgiveness or validation of others. However, it is just as important to forgive oneself. Otherwise, it is easy to get stuck in past failures, and negative self-talk without learning outcomes can be damaging.
How to embrace forgiveness of self:
Talk about it. Silence, pretending, or holding it all in can be detrimental. Talk to a friend you can trust.
Be honest with yourself. This comes hand in hand with talking about it. Breaking out of denial is an important step to self-forgiveness.
Acceptance. You will never be perfect, and you will continue to make mistakes. Learning from them is key, but accepting that you will never be perfect can be freeing. Have realistic expectations for yourself.
Eliminate negative self-talk. Establishing boundaries with how you treat yourself is important. While you are a work in progress, you will not find improvement if you talk down to yourself.
Address any mental health challenges. Therapy can help you address the things in your past that play a role in desired behavioral changes and guilt. A mental health professional is trained to deal with past trauma or other mental health conditions contributing to your struggle.
We all make mistakes.
Making mistakes doesn’t mean you’re a bad person; it simply means that you’re learning and growing as you navigate through this life — just like everyone else.
Getting rid of guilt may require self-reflection to identify where the remorse comes from and why you’re feeling it. It also involves determining if you’re experiencing misplaced guilt, toxic guilt, or actual regret for something you’ve done.
Whether your guilt is justified or based on imagined responsibility, remember that you’re human, and we all make mistakes.
Try to acknowledge your feelings, make amends if necessary, and forgive yourself. If you need help letting go of persistent guilty feelings, consider reaching out to a mental health professional.