How to Deal with Excessive Feelings of Guilt
Likely at some point, we have all done a thing or two that we regret. It’s natural to make mistakes and these are part of normal human growth. However, sometimes excessive feelings of guilt over these mishaps can take over and cause physical and emotional distress.
Regardless of the situation, guilt can be a heavy burden to bear. If left unchecked, it can eat away, drag you down and leave you feeling fixated on what you could have done differently.
On the plus side, it’s important to remember that guilt can also be a very helpful and constructive emotion. Why? It helps you acknowledge your actions and pushes you to be better and to learn from your mistakes. It can also be a sign that you have empathy and good moral standards.
At times though, we may feel excessive guilt, over things that just aren’t our fault or that could not be helped, and this can be damaging if not dealt with. This post will provide some guidance on how to deal with feelings of guilt.
Why Do I Feel Guilty?
First, of all, it’s important to note why we are experiencing feelings of guilt. Generally, this type of emotion is felt when we fail to meet a certain standard and feel that we have let others or ourselves down. It could be breaking a promise, missing a deadline, or telling a lie.
There are two main feelings of guilt – the unhealthy and the healthy type. It’s important to note which type you are dealing with in order to properly tackle it.
This feeling is reasonable or proportionate. It’s the negative, sinking feeling that you get in your stomach when you know that you have done something inappropriate. You may experience this type of guilt when you cause a problem that was avoidable or hurt someone you are close to. This feeling of guilt may act as a prompt for you to make amends and correct your behaviour.
A quick word – just to be clear, we are not talking about feelings of shame or low self-esteem here. It’s important to note the difference. Guilt can be healthy because it provides the opportunity to identify and correct any inappropriate behaviours. On the other hand, shame focuses on the person (yourself) instead of your behaviour.
A brief example to illustrate the difference could be to imagine that you are driving in your car and you accidentally run a red light and almost cause an accident. If you feel guilty, you may think ‘I really messed that up, I need to be more careful and make sure that I am less distracted when driving.’ Whereas shame might say: ‘I am such a useless driver, why am I even allowed to drive? I should never drive again.’ Do you spot the difference? Shame can be more toxic and detrimental to your self-esteem.
This type of guilt is misplaced or irrational. You may have excessive feelings of guilt, but you are not really to blame or have no control over the circumstances. As an example, say your friend loses their job due to COVID-19. However, around the same time, you learn that you are being promoted. Despite the happiness you feel over your own success, you feel bad for your friend and guilty over your feelings of joy. This is unhealthy guilt as you could not control the situation that caused it and you have done nothing wrong.
How to Deal with Healthy Guilt:
Making a mistake and then dealing with the consequences can be unpleasant. But, if this situation does happen, its important to react properly and use it as motivation for personal growth and improving relationships.
Here are a few ways to manage feelings of healthy guilt:
If your actions have affected someone else, be sure to apologise quickly. Do not try to make excuses to justify your actions or place the blame on someone else. Recognise and admit the inconvenience, pain or frustration you may have caused.
Find a reasonable way to correct the situation and take steps to do this as soon as you can. Delaying could leave the other person hurting longer than necessary. It may also cause your feelings of guilt to escalate and lead to anxiety. Try to make your amends practical. For example, if you forgot to do something crucial for a co-worker by the ended deadline, accept responsibility with the boss and work hard to get that task done as soon as possible.
Learn from your actions
The mistake you made may have been a one-off and completely out of character for you. But, if it’s something that you keep doing regularly and continues to cause numerous problems, you may need to address your behaviour and make some changes. Making a positive change will improve your relationships, interactions and prevent the repeated frustration of guilt.
How to Deal with Unhealthy Guilt:
Unhealthy guilt can be difficult to overcome. However, with the right strategies, it is possible to rebalance your perspective on the situation. Here are some tips that may help:
Accept what you cannot control
It’s important to be realistic about what you can control in life. It may help to create a list of what you can and cannot control in the situation that is causing you guilt. Whilst preparing this, remember that you are not responsible for what others think, say, or do. Focus on what you can control in a situation and disregard anything that you cannot.
You could also choose to harness the power of guilt as emotion and try to do something positive in response to your feelings – this could help you feel more in control. As an example, we mentioned the scenario earlier about a friend losing their job while you are promoted. Instead of avoiding the friend because you feel guilty, listen to them, help your friend write a new CV, and look for job listings together.
Learn to assert yourself, stand up for your rights, and comfortably set limits. At times, we may feel guilty because someone has placed an unrealistic pressure on us. If so, remind yourself you may need to be firm when your gut tells you that your morals may be violated. Or, someone may try to manipulate you, to guilt you into acting or behaving in a way that benefits them. If you are certain that your actions are not wrong, stand up for yourself and get your message across loud and clear.
You could also experience feelings of guilt because of your own unrealistic, high standards. This may leave you feeling bad about not doing something, taking time out for yourself or thinking you haven’t done a particular task well enough. If you feel this way, you need to take some time to challenge these feelings and create more realistic standards or goals. At the same time, take heart from the fact that no one is perfect.
Please note that the above techniques may help reduce feelings of guilt but are for guidance only. If you are experiencing overwhelming feelings of guilt, or have a mental health condition such as OCD, or depression, it is recommended that you get help and speak to a health professional.
Speaking to an experienced psychologist can have a positive effect in helping you overcome negative thoughts and feelings so that you can move on with your life. To book an appointment with one of our team, please click here or call our reception on 1800 327 477.