Guilt isn’t always a rational thing; it’s a weight that will crush you whether you deserve it or not.
Guilt is the price we pay when our behavior violates one of our learned ideals or beliefs. The symptoms range from minor emotional discomfort to substantial feelings of self-doubt and despair, and thus it’s one of the most common reasons people seek coaching or therapy, since they can’t let go of the guilt they feel.
Excess guilt is one of the heaviest and unhealthiest weights a person can hold. It’s like strapping an extra 100+ pounds to your forehead and trying to go about your day. Fortunately, just as a change in how you approach your body can help shed excess body weight (i.e. eating healthy and exercising), a change in how you approach your thoughts can help you shed excess guilt.
If you feel like you’re carrying around excess guilt right now, here are some simple reminders to help you let go and ease your mind:
- A guilty, suffering spirit is far more open to love and grace than an uncaring or smug soul. So, in a backwards way, it’s good news if you’re feeling like you’ve done wrong – it means you actually care to be better than you have been. And starting now, you can be.
- Guilt is not a response to other people’s sadness or anger; it’s a response to your own actions or lack thereof, and it can be positive. If guilt leads to change then it can be useful, since it’s then no longer just guilt but the beginning of knowledge and growth. That’s the key – channeling your initial feelings of guilt into positive action. Let the way you feel change the way you live.
- There’s no reason to feel perpetually guilty for making a sincere mistake. To make a mistake is to be human. Mistakes are part of life – everyone makes them, and everyone feels a little guilty sometimes. But – and this is a BIG BUT – some people learn from their mistakes and some end up making the same ones again and again. It’s up to you to decide if you’ll learn from your mistakes and use them to your advantage. (Read The Gifts of Imperfection.)
- If you feel guilty about something you did or didn’t do, don’t be ashamed to apologize. An apology may seem like a sign of weakness, but having the courage to go up to someone and say “I’m sorry” is a great strength!
- We’re all a little selfish sometimes. It’s human nature. A selfish person can still love someone else, can’t they? Even when they’ve hurt them and let them down? The answer is yes, as long a lesson is learned and not deliberately repeated.
- Every one of us is guilty in some way – for all the good we didn’t do – the kind words never spoken, and the good deeds left undone. We can’t change that now – the past is behind us – but we can still make the best use of today and every day going forward. Yes, perhaps there’s a lot more we all could have done, but we just have to let the guilt remind us to do better next time.
- Some people like passing guilt and blame on to others. Beware of this. It’s strange the way someone who wants to play the blame game and find you guilty can pass judgments, tell stories, and actually make you believe in your own guilt, even when you know you’re innocent (or deserve forgiveness). Beware of this phenomenon and don’t condemn yourself just to satisfy other people’s drama. (Angel and I discuss this in more detail in the “Relationships” chapter of 1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently.)
- If you decide to make positive changes, let it be out of generosity and respect for yourself and others, not because you fear guilt or retribution in any way.
- When you think EVERYONE is looking at you, it’s usually just you looking at yourself. Understand this. Understand that the fear of judgment is the mark of excessive guilt and the burden of insecurity.
- If someone says they hate you, whatever the reason, everything they say about you after that is more or less meaningless. Hate is irrational – when hatred judges, the verdict is always guilty. The same is true when we hate ourselves for something – we can’t possibly vindicate ourselves and grow from the experience. The bottom line is that we may feel guilt, give reasons, and even have excuses, but in the end it’s an act of cowardice to not give yourself another chance. It’s time to show yourself some love and respect.
- If you can’t reconcile things with yourself, and you don’t feel ready to talk it out with someone else, write it down. Write your heart out! So often when we’re feeling guilty we’re in a state of denial. We’ve denied, trivialized or distorted our own experiences and feelings. Writing is an important path for healing because it gives you the opportunity to sort out your thoughts and define your own reality. You can say: “This did happen to me. It was that bad. It was a terrible mistake. I’ve grown from it. I was – and am – worthy of my own love and forgiveness.”
- You may have lots of moments that aren’t too bad, and yet there’s always something you’re struggling with, or feeling guilty about. You may just assume you need to try harder, but you find it difficult to sustain that level of effort. If that sounds at all familiar, it’s time to let go of control, at least a little bit. It’s time to stop feeling guilty about not being able to control the uncontrollable.
Let me wrap this up with a simple question:
Is it possible that all the “bad” or “foolish” things you’ve done have been forgiven and forgotten by everyone who matters in your life, except you?
Think about that for a moment…
And then let me know what you think about this post by leaving a comment below.
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Photo by: Taro Taylor
Again, you knocked this topic out of the park. These reminders are worth reviewing as often as necessary — an for me that’s pretty darn often. One thing I learned from your coaching last year that really changed my perspective (and my life) was the fact that guilt is also a way for us to express that we are a person of good conscience. Thus, your first point in this post truly resonated. Thank you.
Marc Chernoff says
As I’ve said previously, Mara, your growth continues to inspire us. I’m so happy we were able to give you a little positive momentum, but you’ve done the rest.
Katie Beans says
I agree with Mara – I think this post is one everyone should read at least once. Although I used feel guilty about everything, I’m now comfortable to admit that I am who I am… and I’m not ashamed of that and the mistakes I sometimes make… even though I should be according to some people.
Thank you, again, for such insightful posts and emails.
Marc Chernoff says
I love your sentiment, Katie! And you’re welcome.
A lesson on guilt that I picked up from one of your old emails:
“Don’t say sorry because I’m hurt. Say sorry because you’re hurt and you sincerely want to be better.”
I think that’s the foundational key with guilt for me. I’ve got to remember this. As you’ve said in this post, guilt can be positive if it’s focused properly and inspires positive change.
Marc Chernoff says
You got it, Chris! Glad that lesson/quote resonated.
Kat Stevens says
So true. With guilt, we often hold ourselves hostage to it for too long. We have a hard time forgiving ourselves, that we will punish ourselves day after day.. I have done this very thing.
I think the key is… realizing that each day we are given is a new day. If others don’t want to know, forgive and love us, we don’t really have control over that. But we can keep loving, forgiving and being kind. From afar. That’s love.
Marc Chernoff says
Well stated, Kat! Thank you for sharing your perspective.
Thank you, very much. This has helped me today.
Great list. I’m working with shame and guilt right now so it all made sense to me. I loved point 7. I have found myself in that situation often, when I felt someone had done me wrong one way or another but after an argument or heated discussion I seemed to come out scratching my head wondering why I was now the one not only feeling guilty for what had happened but also apologising for it! After reading point 7, I’m realising now that it was someone else’s blame game, passing the buck, refusing to feel any responsibility themselves. As you say, you really have to “watch out” for this one! As for the final question, I think most of my guilt feelings are self-inflicted in that oftentimes there’s nothing to feel guilty about in the moment. Instead, I’m actually looking for stuff to feel guilty about. It’s insane, but I think I must have been made to feel heavily guilty for things in the past and it’s just become programmed or something.
Marc Chernoff says
Letting go of this mindset is a gradual process, Nickolas, but you’ve got the right idea. Stay strong and keep going with it, day by day.
Great article… I find myself at times feeling guilt over what I have neglected to do rather than what I have done… That said, I also have found that letting go and moving on is more productive than letting the guilt weigh me down. Thank you for supporting that in me!
Growing up I made a lot of mistakes and hurt a lot of people. Now at the age of 53 living with my regrets seem to overwhelm me at times.
Marc Chernoff says
Remember, you are not who you were then. You have grown. Be present with yourself, and continue to grow. I’m cheering for you.
thank you. the past several years I’ve acted foolishly because of hurt feelings. only after taking time off now have I come to realize my folly. it caused me to make some needed changes. and realize more change is needed. maybe now I won’t feel so guilty about everything. keep up the good work.
Marc Chernoff says
Congrats! I’m happy to hear you’re making positive changes in your life.
Zarine Khan says
You have said it right. The important thing to realize is to learn from our mistakes, we can all be a little selfish at sometimes and make a wrong decision. Do the best you can to better the situation and forgive yourself to let go of all the guilt. Like you say, it means you are a caring person if you feel guilty about something.
“When you think EVERYONE is looking at you, it’s usually just you looking at yourself. Understand this. Understand that the fear of judgment is the mark of excessive guilt and the burden of insecurity.” has really opened my eyes in this situation of guilt am in now. thanks for the sharing.
Very well written Marc–very insightful. I especially appreciated the idea that we all feel guilty about having committed an act which we realize should not have been done, and maybe it was done under some kind of pressure. But as long as we can make amends with this situation, learn from it and try our best not to repeat it, we will ultimately come out of this as better human beings. Another point you stated about people who feel a guilt, I agree you do have a loving heart to go through this a state of guilt. Thanks for a great article.
Great article! I think everyone should read this article at least once. We’ve all made a lot of mistakes and hurt a lot of people. As you’ve said in this post don’t be ashamed to apologize. Thanks for a great article.
I had an abortion and I feel so guilty of what I did. I took the life of my own child. I will never be able to know if he/she forgives me. I did it for the sake of my partner’s future. And a few months after the abortion, he left me and started dating my own friend. I hate the fact that he left but I have no rights to be angry as I left my own child as well. I thought about how things would be now if I kept my child, maybe my partner will still leave me after we get married. But at least, my child will live and I get to feel his/her toes and see him/her smile and cry for the first time and love him/her endlessly. At least I’ll have a reason to live and be strong for the one I love.
desperately needed this. I never comment on these things but this was a huge help- feeling so guilty for doing something “i would never do”. found myself making a huge mistake on my path of “self discovery”. great article- I will definitely be reading this regularly to keep reminding myself of these things.
Thank you ?!! We’re all doing the best we can! I’m hopeful again!!