August 6, 2020

How to say good-bye to unnecessary guilt

I run a water cooler talk every Monday and Thursday afternoon from 2:00 pm to 2:30 pm EST. It’s just a half an hour where people learn a wellbeing tip, and then they have an opportunity to talk about it and incorporate it and discuss it, and then we move on. So, it’s half an hour of support, and a lot of people have found it very helpful to get this kind of support through this pandemic.

One of the things that came up is the idea of feeling guilty. A lot of people are finding that they’re sitting at home, and it’s a lot easier to ruminate because there are fewer people to talk to, fewer people to be distracted by, you’re not in the office, busy all the time. So you are alone with your thoughts. And a lot of the times, we can turn to, “oh, what do I feel guilty about”? So, I wanted to talk today about guilt and how you can manage it.

So, the first question to ask is, is guilt necessarily a bad thing? The short answer is no; guilt is not a bad thing. When you think about it, because it’s a societal thing, it helps society in the sense that if I go and do something and I feel bad about it, and I feel guilty about it, then that’s going to prevent me from doing that again. So, it helps people stay in check, and they don’t engage in bad behaviour because then they feel guilty about it afterwards. Guilt is good when it stops you from doing things that could hurt other people.

However, guilt is not necessarily good when it makes you feel like you are a terrible person. When you internalize it, when you embody it, remember you are not your actions. Just because you’ve done something that is not necessarily a good thing, doesn’t necessarily mean that overall you are suddenly a bad person. We always talk about an Aristotelian mean with regard to this. A little bit of guilt can be useful if it keeps your behaviour in check, but if it makes you feel bad about yourself, then guilt is not necessarily good

Stop catastrophizing it.

Now, let’s talk about how you can manage guilt. One of the first things you can do is stop catastrophizing it. A lot of the time, I find that when people feel guilty about something, and they punish themselves, the punishment doesn’t suit the crime.

I have a friend of mine who cheated on her husband, and she always felt that it was a mistake. Unfortunately, it broke up their marriage, and for several years, her ex-husband called her names, was verbally abusive to her, made her life very difficult, and she took it because she felt guilty; she thought that she deserved it. When I spoke to her several years later, I told her enough is enough. Yes, you’ve done something that you feel bad about, and it broke your marriage; however, it’s time to forgive yourself, and it’s time to say, “I will not accept this bad behaviour anymore. I made a mistake. I’m human. I’ve apologized. I’ve done what I’ve done, and we need to move on. I do not deserve to be abused for the rest of my life because I made this mistake”. So, ask yourself, is your punishment greater than the crime?

Practice non-contingent self-esteem

Something else you can do is practice non-contingent self-esteem. When you do something, think about how you can fix that focus. For example, if you’ve done something that’s hurt one of your friend’s feelings, focus on apologizing; concentrate on getting into action. Don’t spend all your time ruminating about what a lousy person you are, because you did that one thing. Focus more on fixing it and your actions than beating yourself up. When we talk about contingent self-esteem, what we’re saying is, you decide to judge yourself based on something that you’ve done, and you don’t want to do that. You want to be able to see something you’ve done and fix it rather than trying to say, “Oh, now I must be all of this.”

Don’t allow people to make you feel guilty based on their standard

The third tip that I want to talk about in terms of how to manage your guilt is not to allow people to make you feel guilty because you haven’t jumped through a whole bunch of hoops to act in ways that are appropriate to them. There’s a lot of people out there who have rules or standards that you don’t meet. And if you don’t meet them and they feel bad because of that, sometimes they’re going to project that on you and make you feel guilty. They don’t know you. Don’t allow people to make you feel guilty.

Empower yourself and know that sometimes you have to stand up for your values and what is important to you. Don’t allow someone else to manipulate you into having you do something that you don’t feel comfortable doing. Stand up for yourself and don’t feel guilty about it.

Don’t give the action more meaning than it deserves

Remember to not give the action more meaning than it deserves. For example, I had a friend of mine who was doing this exercise program with me. One day she said, “I didn’t put myself first today, and I didn’t do the exercise.” And then the next day, she missed the exercise again, and she said, “oh, I didn’t put myself first today.” Now, that’s putting a lot of meaning. She’s feeling guilty because she didn’t just miss the exercise, but she’s not putting herself first. She’s giving this act of not doing the exercise much greater meaning than is required. So, I talked to her and said, leave that alone. You just weren’t able to exercise that day. You’ll do it tomorrow. It doesn’t mean you’re not putting yourself first. So let’s not give these things greater meaning than what they are, because then it could just escalate the guilt that we feel.

Be self-compassionate

Often we feel guilty for doing things because we feel that the only way we can be better is by being hard on ourselves, and that’s not the case. What we find with the self-compassion research is that in fact, people do better; they’re more productive, and they perform better when they are more self-compassionate. So, don’t be so hard on yourself, be self-compassionate, and you will actually do better and get ahead.

When you know better, you do better

The final thing that I want to say about managing your guilt is from the famous Maya Angelou, “when you know better, you will do better.” If you’ve done something that you’re not proud of, you can say, you know what? I didn’t know any better back then, but I know better now, and I will do better starting today. If we can always learn from our mistakes, that is what’s important. When you can be self-compassionate, not beat yourself up and be able to say, I will do better now that I know better, that’s how you’re going to take yourself to higher levels of wellbeing and happiness.

I hope these tips on dealing with and managing guilt have been helpful. I know, over the years, getting rid of these feelings of guilt has been tremendously useful for me, so I hope they’re useful for you.


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