As we journey through life there are many challenges to face, some more difficult than others. Dealing with guilt might not seem as one of the big ones, but it can have a debilitating effect when we feel it. We’ve all felt it, it’s there, nagging at us, making us feel bad.
You might say, if you’re feeling guilt, you must have done something wrong that’s caused you to feel that way. That’s true of course, but none of us is perfect and looking back after the event can show us things we didn’t see before. Yes, hindsight is a wonderful thing, it’s a shame we don’t always use foresight in the same way.
Sometimes things just happen around us and we get caught up in it without intending to. We then say or do things we shouldn’t have. When we reflect on it, we feel regret and there we are again dealing with the guilty feelings. Not everyone is like that, it depends on a person’s persona. Some can just brush it off without a care, but most of us dwell on it and end up feeling bad about ourselves. So, what’s the best way to deal with it?
Why Do We Feel Guilt?
Guilt is described as a moral emotion which can be triggered when our intensions don’t match our behavior. There can be many reasons why this happens and usually has much to do with our upbringing. We learn our morals (or lack of them) as we grow from an early age. Morals are, in some ways, similar to beliefs in that, we are given them from someone else, because we know no better.
We carry our morals, like beliefs, with us through life and although they can change, they often don’t. There’s an element of universal moral laws and our culture which also has an effect on us. As we grow older, gaining more knowledge, sometimes we question some of our morals, but it’s interesting that our core ones tend to stay the same throughout our life.
An interesting article in the journal PLOS ONE by Princeton researcher, Martin Day and Ramona Bobocel, associate professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo concluded that guilt can be associated with feeling weight. This feeling can occur even though guilt is weightless, but can explain the term, feeling the weight of guilt or even being laden with guilt. It’s uncanny how guilt can literally make us feel as if there’s a heavy load weighing us down. Perhaps that gives a clue about how to deal with guilt and the negative feelings we get from it.
First Steps for Dealing with Guilt
In the harsh world of reality, often when we have a problem, we’re told to just deal with it. That’s easier said than done, but it is the answer. You are in control of how you feel and if you allow others to be in control, it’s because you’re giving away that control. Once you acknowledge that, it can become easier to take back control. There are various ways of handling the feeling of guilt, but first understand why you’re feeling it.
If you’ve done something you regret, it’s good that you care about the fact you’ve done it. Doesn’t that show that you have decent morals? OK, you may have broken one of them, but at least you recognize it and that doesn’t make you a bad person. As the saying goes: it isn’t a crime to make a mistake, but it is a crime to not learn from it.
Just recently while out with some friends, I made a joke about one of them. It caused a very uncomfortable moment because I’d hit a raw nerve of one of that person’s insecurities. I wasn’t aware of it and wouldn’t have made the remark had I known. The guilt I felt was immense and thankfully my apology was accepted. The lesson for me, was that getting laughs with cheap jibes about someone else, is not clever. I know that of course, but it was a timely reminder that I’ll not forget, because of the feeling it gave me.
Types of Guilt
There are two types of guilt, healthy and unhealthy. You might wonder how can there possibly be such a thing as healthy guilt? The situation I just described about myself above, to me, was a healthy guilt. I received a message in no uncertain terms, about how I should behave towards other people. Note, I didn’t say how I shouldn’t behave. Although I did feel guilty at the time, I feel good about the message I received, and it will affect how I act in future.
Unhealthy guilt can come within, but it’s mostly caused by others telling how bad you are, or how you’re doing something wrong. In some ways, it’s a form of control which is achieved by making you feel bad about yourself. Because it comes from an outside influence, you may start to question your own integrity. It can become a vicious circle where you begin to feel bad about yourself in other areas of your life unconnected to the original guilt.
Ask yourself why you’re feeling guilt and what type it is. If it’s the healthy type, it should be easier to deal with and to do something about. If it’s the unhealthy type, you might not be causing it, but you are allowing it. Ask yourself if it’s justified and if it is, it’ll probably be healthy anyway. If it isn’t justified, but you still feel bad, recognize the feeling is yours and you have the power to stop it. It might be that one of your beliefs about yourself needs to change. You should begin by thinking positively about yourself.
Acknowledging the Feeling
It’s amazing how anything small can quickly turn into a feeling of massive guilt. It can be so irrational and hard to defeat. The main thing is to acknowledge that it has a use, unless it’s from someone else trying to put you down or make themselves feel superior. What purpose is it serving, and can it make you a better person? You might be surprised at what you discover with a bit of searching.
If you’ve done something wrong, accept it, but try not to dwell on it. Chances are, in a few days or weeks it will have little or no importance, so why the feeling now? Be glad you’re like everyone else, prone to silly mistakes now and again.
None of us is perfect when it comes to mistakes, but we’re unique and that’s what counts. We really can learn and move on, if we want to. Otherwise we become a slave to this feeling and it will only grow. No one would ever say that dealing with guilt is easy, but many would look back on it and recognize it either taught a valuable lesson or, was totally pointless.