6 ways to deal with guilt

rear view of a boy sitting on grassland

by Kim Rosenthal, MD – Wacky and Wonderful Mental Health Library (a place where healing meets humor and creativity)

“People are more than the worst thing
they have ever done in their lives.”
–Helen Prejean

The Wacky and Wonderful Mental Health Library is about joy and jokes and future, but guilt is still real, very real, and people struggle with it.  Life makes you do things you regret.  There’s no avoiding it.  This is a serious-heart article to help people deal with one of life’s most common heartaches: our dark pasts.

Guilt is about feeling bad, even disliking ourselves, over something we did or didn’t do in the past.  Guilt can be normal: the fact that we feel it proves that we have compassion for others.  At the same time, guilt can become so toxic and destructive that it overwhelms, and that’s when it’s time to stop and analyze the situation.  How do you deal with guilt?

Here are six ways to deal with guilt, shame, and failure.

1. Unwarranted guilt. Are you guilty about something that was beyond your control?  If so, you need to remind yourself of that.  Remind yourself over and over.  Keep yourself grounded in reality.  If you had no control over the situation, there’s no way it was your fault.  Stop feeling guilty.

2. Failure. Sometimes guilt is the result of failure.  Failure causes tremendous suffering, and that suffering can be destructive.  Often it leads people to abandon goals they might have achieved otherwise.  That’s a lot of lost potential.  A lot of heartbreak.

Failing to achieve a goal the first or second or third time doesn’t mean the goal’s unattainable.  Sometimes the trick is not giving up.  Don’t waste your time with guilt or shame. Instead, ask yourself: why did I fail?  What can I do differently?  Then try again. Learn from your mistakes.  They make you stronger.

Two great examples of failure turned into success include Einstein and Edison.

Einstein didn’t speak until he was four, causing his teachers and parents to think he was mentally handicapped, slow and anti-social. Later he failed many classes, was expelled from school, and was even denied admission to the Zurich Polytechnic School. Yet he changed the world as we know it.

Thomas Edison’s teachers described him as “too stupid to learn anything.” He was fired from his first two jobs for poor productivity. He then made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb before he succeeded.  What did he do differently to other inventors?  He never gave up.

3. Right the wrong. If you’ve hurt another person, compensate them.  None off us can go back and undo our mistakes, but we can try to ensure that those we damaged don’t pay for our misdemeanors.  Make amends. Right the wrong.  Don’t apologize with words.  Apologize with actions.  Start by trying to make it up to the person you’ve hurt.  Pay them the money you owe.  If you can’t afford to pay back the money you owe, pick up garbage, vacuum, and do other chores, even if they don’t notice.  If attempts to talk are either unsuccessful or potentially harmful to the other person, leave the person alone and make up for the wrong in different ways (below).

4. Letter. Write a letter to the person you hurt.  You can send that person the letter if you want, as long as it improves the situation.  Again, if contacting the person only makes things worse, go ahead and write the letter, then burn it, throw it away, share it with someone you trust, or do something with it that makes sense to you.  What should you write?  Try the following:

(1) State that you care about the other person and would like to make things right

(2) Describe the situation from the other person’s point of view.  Show him that you are trying to understand.

(3) If you need to say you’re sorry, apologize.  If you need to make peace, offer a solution, something that works for both the other person and you, an agreement in kindness.

If you do send the letter, remember that you might not be forgiven.  But you’ll have done the best you can, reaching out with good intentions, and can be at peace with that.  There are other ways to make up for guilt.

5. General good.  Consider volunteering or joining a humanitarian movement to make a difference in the lives of others.  If you can’t do it large scale, do one good thing a day and don’t tell anyone.  This isn’t about being recognized for good acts.  It’s about your making it up to society and yourself.  Only you can bear witness to that.

6. Change. If your guilt is related to addiction, criminal acts, anger problems, a negative response to a relationship, or other harmful patterns of behavior, the best way to overcome the guilt is to change your actions.  Pursue substance abuse treatment and quit drinking & using drugs.  Get on the legal straight and narrow.  Go to anger management classes.  Attend counseling or remove yourself from a bad relationship.  Whatever the challenge, make the change.  Promise yourself you can do better, and each time you fall, pick yourself up and start over again.  This can be a long journey, challenging and painful.  Be kind to yourself but insist you keep trying.

Remember, no matter what you do to make up for it, the person you hurt might not forgive you.  But you know you’re doing the best you can to make up for it.  Be at peace with that.

Sometimes guilt can linger no matter what you do, taking over your everyday life and causing problems in your relationships.  If the guilt is toxic and overwhelming, consider seeing a psychotherapist to make sense out of it.

“The greatest accomplishment is not in never falling, but in rising again after you fall.” – Vince Lombardi

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