As far back as 1955, researchers have indicated guilt is an universal emotion, meaning it’s felt by everyone at some level. The psychological research belief is generally that the feeling of guilt, like that of any other emotion, is the same anywhere in the world -- but its causes and consequences can vary a lot from an individual to another and from one culture to another.
It’s important to note early in this article that some life decisions can cause legitimate guilt, i.e. cheating on a romantic partner or doing something unethical at work. But there are other situations in life where you will feel guilty about a small mistake, or legitimately nothing at all, and those can be trickier to navigate. What do you do when there’s guilt without a major catalyst?
If you think for only a few seconds right now, you can probably come up with an example in your life of feeling guilty. It’s truly a rather universal emotion.
So now let’s attempt to begin dealing with it, with a road guide to how to stop feeling guilty.
To understand guilt, we need to know the roots of the emotion. That’s more complicated than we think.
The fact that guilt is such a common emotion means it has to have a positive rooting in the brain, which feels weird because most of us associate the term “guilt” with negativity. But per the book The Upward Spiral:
Despite their differences, pride, shame, and guilt all activate similar neural circuits, including the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, amygdala, insula, and the nucleus accumbens. Interestingly, pride is the most powerful of these emotions at triggering activity in these regions — except in the nucleus accumbens, where guilt and shame win out. This explains why it can be so appealing to heap guilt and shame on ourselves — they’re activating the brain’s reward center.
That’s the simple answer to why we feel guilt: despite its negative connotation, it activates the brain’s reward center.
Obviously, of course, guilt isn’t all good by any means. From The Willpower Instinct:
Study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control. It is also one of the single biggest predictors of depression, which drains both “I will” power and “I want” power.
OK, so: the brain can see guilt as a reward, but it can also be a leading driver of depression. See how this is complicated?
Professionally, it’s complicated too. To wit:
People who are prone to guilt tend to work harder and perform better than people who are not guilt-prone, and are perceived to be more capable leaders.
We will get to how to deal with guilt as part of the how to stop feeling guilty journey in a second, but a quick detour first to symptoms of guilt.
Notable physical symptoms of guilt include:
At a broader level, guilt can manifest as anxiety, depression, or even obsessive-compulsive disorder, whereby you overfocus on the source or catalyst of the guilt, regardless of its true intensity. (More on that in the next section.)
If you Google “symptoms of guilt” in the USA, you typically get SAMHSA’s National Helpline information. That stands for Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and while the focus is on families experiencing addiction, the website contains numerous resources for various conditions that might drive guilt deeply into a family or individual. It’s a worthwhile resource if you believe you know the source of your guilt and can contact the appropriate helpline or resource bank, where you can be referred for further counseling or treatment possibilities.
This is a common sentiment.
The first step is to identify the magnitude of the mistake, as noted above. Did you mess up a tracking document at work? There’s some guilt associated there, but it’s likely not a situation that will spiral drastically, unless your manager has a deep penchant for holding grudges. (Sadly, some do.) Did you cheat on your spouse? That’s significantly worse.
In the first condition, you may be “magnifying.” As explained in the book Feeling Good:
In addition to distortion, several other criteria can be helpful in distinguishing abnormal guilt from a healthy sense of remorse or regret. These include the intensity, duration, and consequences of your negative emotion.
If the intensity and duration are long, it’s likely a bigger mistake -- and, not to judge you from a blog post, but there’s a chance you should feel horrible.
But in these situations, there’s a way to think about the mistakes and horror you’re feeling. Namely: what exactly is it accomplishing? From the same book above:
But what is the point of abusing yourself with guilt in the first place? If you did make a mistake and act in a hurtful way, your guilt won’t reverse your blunder in some magical manner. It won’t speed your learning processes so as to reduce the chance you’ll make the same mistake in the future. Other people won’t love and respect you more because you are feeling guilty and putting yourself down in this manner. Nor will your guilt lead to productive living. So what’s the point?
Indeed. The guilt is an emotion and a reaction; it’s your brain processing what’s happening in your life. But the guilt itself does nothing. Now we need to move to action.
When you see guilt in others or feel it in yourself, one approach is to replace it with forgiveness:
Surprisingly, it’s forgiveness, not guilt, that increases accountability. Researchers have found that taking a self-compassionate point of view on a personal failure makes people more likely to take personal responsibility for the failure than when they take a self-critical point of view. They also are more willing to receive feedback and advice from others, and more likely to learn from the experience.
The goal of an approach to how to stop feeling guilty should be some type of change; a “learn” from the experience. Permission to be forgiven, or attempts at forgiveness -- a lesson borrowed deeply from organized religion, too -- will help this journey.
You could also reach out to a therapist.
There’s also cognitive reappraisal, which is the process of moving past negative events by reframing them. You have to be careful with this one, because too much reframing can be a form of rationalization or not admitting your wrongs (what caused the guilt), and that won’t change any behavior in the future. But you can look realistically at the situation causing you guilt, including speaking to friends, family, and people who have the background knowledge on what happened. This might allow you to shift your mindsets around the source of the guilt.
Be vulnerable. This is never truly easy, but might be a bit harder with a trusted partner as opposed to professionally, where vulnerability is often seen as a weakness. Brene Brown has become famous by showcasing the power of vulnerability, and it’s truly important: if your guilt is emanating from a wrong you committed at a specific person (i.e. cheating), go to them and explain what happened, why you did it, why you’re remorseful, and your approach for moving on, while allowing them space and grace to process everything in their own way.
Cut down on “black and white thinking.” A lot of our existence happens in the grays, and we try to push everything to the black and white. This is true in political discourse, at work, and more. Sometimes there is nuance to what caused guilt that’s not captured if you simply think “I am bad for having done this” or “I am good for having resolved this quickly.” Look at the full spectrum of emotions, reactions, and consequences.
Don’t think of yourself as a bad person. In the book Feeling Good, mentioned elsewhere in this article, the author notes:
More often than not, the belief that you are bad contributes to the “bad” behavior. Change and learning occur most readily when you (a) recognize that an error has occurred and (b) develop a strategy for correcting the problem. An attitude of self-love and relaxation facilitates this, whereas guilt often interferes.
Remember this above all too: Can you predict the future with absolute certainty? No. You have two options: You can either decide to accept yourself as an imperfect human being with limited knowledge and realize that you will at times make mistakes, or you can hate yourself for it. Guilt is a powerful emotion, and speaks to something about your decision-making, but your behaviors don’t define you 100%, and even if you learn from every guilt experience in your life, you have no idea what will happen tomorrow or in three weeks.
So take a deep breath, blow back out through your mouth, and realize that humans are imperfect creatures who make mistakes and have reactions to those mistakes. No one gets to skip “The Second Act of Life,” and that’s where most of the relevant narratives happen -- good and bad. Above all else with guilt, then, think and realize: I am an imperfect human, and I can keep pushing through this.
Many of the strategies listed above will work in a relationship, and in fact, they might work better, because relationships allow for a certain degree of vulnerability and truth. Whereas, if you make a mistake at work and feel guilty about it, the aftermath might be heavily process-driven -- a review, a post-mortem, even a performance improvement plan.
Those scenarios, because they are typically defined by the organization and led by a silo (i.e. HR), are not places for vulnerability. They are places to you to follow the steps, listen to the instructions, and move forward from the mistake to overcome the guilt.
When we draw thick lines between personal and professional relationships and experiences, this is the line we are drawing; a mistake in a personal relationship can be dealt with in a much more open way. Now, we didn’t say “easier,’ because having a conversation with a partner about infidelity is horrible. But … if you did love and trust each other, some of that still remains, and vulnerability can enter the space. That’s much, much less true in professional settings.
This is a complicated topic too, and not everyone masters it. You see the rise of anxiety (it’s “the new normal”) as one factor here; people have a skewed self-effect and feel bad about themselves, and that drives additional anxiety and depression.
How do you stop feeling bad about yourself, as a component part of how to stop feeling guilty? Some of the strategies above will work, but also think about:
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