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Dealing With Guilt

Mothers and Daughters Part Two
Creative Commons License photo credit: K. Kendall

“Every guilty person is his own hangman.” – Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Guilt is a heavy feeling.  It’s like lugging around a large, unwieldy trunk full of stuff you don’t need or want, but can’t seem to put down.

The worst thing about guilt is that even though the circumstance has passed, you keep carrying it around with you.  And that trunk just seems to get heavier.  Discover how to put the trunk down and forgive yourself.

Guilt’s Message

All of your emotions carry a message with them; telling you to do something that needs to be done.  So what does guilt tell you?

It’s telling you to address your past wrongs – maybe to “fix” a situation that you left broken, return something you took, or simply apologize.  Guilt lets you know that there is redress to whatever you have done.

Even if you can’t address it directly with the people or person you wronged, you can take what you learned and create something that will help yourself or other people.  In effect, turning a negative into a positive.

Guilt = A Lesson in Forgiveness

Dealing with guilt is really about forgiving yourself.  Eternal punishment is not necessary. 😉  Address what happened, take the necessary action and move on.  There is no need to carry guilt with you forever.

Don’t Re-Act

Guilt puts you in a reactive state.  When you feel guilty about something, often you try to “make up” for it in other situations in your life.  But this is neither addressing what you did nor learning from it, it’s just a reaction to what happened.  And when you are reacting, all of your actions are based on another person, and not on your own motivations.  You get stuck in the re-action.

I was in a relationship once where I was the one who ended it.  I felt guilty about that because it was fairly serious and we cared a lot for each other.  My life circumstances changed, however, and I made the decision that it was best to end it.  When I entered into a new relationship some time after that, my guilt came with me.  A lot of how I acted in the new relationship was actually based on the previous one.

This did me no good and certainly did the relationship no good.  I was still in the past, but acting in the present.  Instead of addressing the previous situation, I was trying to “make-up” for it.  But you can’t really “make-up” for something you did with one person, with another.  I needed to address the actual situation, if not with my previous boyfriend, then at least with myself.

Moving Past Guilt

  • “Fix” it with the person you wronged – What action can you take to redress what you did?  Figure this out and then do it.  However, this action may not always be accessible or appropriate.  Some situations are too far in the past or the person is simply not available.
  • Assess what you learned – How can you take what you learned and create something positive with that?  If you can’t address the situation with the person themselves, you can still learn something from it.  Find the good in what happened. Create with that.
  • Forgive yourself – Lastly, after you’ve taken one or both of the above actions, forgive yourself.  Forgiving yourself does not make what you did right, nor does it excuse you, it simply allows you to move on.  Once you’ve taken action towards your guilt, forgiveness is easier.  We all do things that hurt other people sometimes, but this does not make you a “bad” person beyond forgiveness.  Put that trunk down and don’t look behind you.  😉

How do you deal with guilt in your life?  Have you found that you’ve been able to move on?  Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments.

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11 Comments

  1. I appreciate the insights and suggestions in this post, as I am one for carrying around a ton of guilt and self-blame. I do try to make amends whenever that is possible, perhaps even going overboard.

    Self-forgiveness is one of the things on which I still need to work each day. I am making progress!

    Karen

  2. Thanks for this. For me, I find it’s important to distinguish between situations where I feel like I actually acted in a manner that was out of integrity, and situations where someone just got mad at me. Sometimes I feel guilt in the latter situations but it’s important to keep perspective and recognize that I’m not responsible for how other people feel all the time.
    .-= Chris Edgar | Purpose Power Coaching´s last blog ..10 Motivational Metal Masterpieces =-.

  3. Amanda Linehan Amanda Linehan

    Hi Dani – Yeah, most people do carry around guilt. But it’s ok to try and move past it. 🙂

    Hi Karen – Forgiveness of other people is hard and many times it’s even harder to forgive yourself. It’s something you can practice though. 🙂

    Hi Chris – Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right. Sometimes we feel guilty for doing things that ultimately we needed to do. You said it best – you are not responsible for how others feel.

  4. Amanda: I don’t quite know how you do it, but you always manage to write posts that call directly to my current life-situations. 🙂

    I love this post. I love it for the simplicity and the truth and the meaning behind the words. Guilt is something I tend to have a lot of — I tend to take it in and bottle it up and it’s a bitter poison that slowly eats away at you. Maybe it’s from coming from an Italian family or just having a sensitive nature, I can’t be sure 😉 Whatever the reason, I know it’s not good, and I’m trying to rectify that.

    “Dealing with guilt is really about forgiving yourself”

    I think you’ve really hit the nail on the head with this sentence, personally why I tend to hold all of that in. It’s sometimes easier to forgive other people, harder to forgive yourself. Even when it’s not even necessary.

    I’m rambling, but your post was cathartic and came at exactly the right time. I love your tips and hope to use that to continue moving forward.

    Thanks, Amanda, for another beautiful blog post!

  5. Yes! The feeling of guilt is both a heavy weight to carry round and a powerful sign that we’ve made a mistake – we’ve done something that we wouldn’t have done if we’d known what we know now. I really like your three steps to dealing with it. Rectify it, learn from it, move on!

    What I find helpful is to separate the FEELING guilt from the CONCEPT of guilt.

    The feeling is an important signal that we need to do something.

    The concept, however, is mixed up with ideas of right/wrong, good/bad and punishment. If I get into this way of thinking it goes like this – ‘I AM guilty. I am a BAD person. I DESERVE punishment’. I don’t consider this a healthy way to live and we miss the opportunity to learn. And it’s hard to forgive if we’re more wrapped up in punishing ourselves. This kind of guilt thinking can last a lifetime!
    .-= Ian Peatey´s last blog ..Heart of business =-.

  6. Jay Wigley Jay Wigley

    Ian,
    On the other hand, we all feel guilt from time to time (everyone without a serious mental disorder, anyway). We feel guilt BECAUSE we are not BAD people. BAD people don’t feel guilt, because they are bad. 🙂 So the concept of guilt enforces the idea that if you feel it, you are feeling it because you “know better,” because you are not a BAD person.

  7. Amanda Linehan Amanda Linehan

    Hi Susan – Another meaningful coincidence! Many people would consider forgiving another person as a difficult thing to do. They would also probably consider forgiving themselves even more difficult. 🙂

    Hi Ian – I like the idea of separating the feeling from the concept. That’s a great way of looking at this. There is no good in simply carrying guilt around with you, and I think the “concept” tends more towards that. Thanks.

    Hi Jay – Interesting way to turn that idea on it’s head. 🙂 You’re right, though, feeling guilty does assume that we are thinking of others in some way, which is a good thing. I would still hope, though, that a person could do what they need to do and move on from their guilt.

  8. Sophie Sophie

    Hi

    What happens if you have done something to someone else that you are feeling guilty about… like cheating where there is no way to see good in the situation?

  9. Amanda Linehan Amanda Linehan

    Hi Sophie – Anytime you feel guilty about something, even if what you did is not a good thing, you can always take steps to make amends for what you did and learn something about yourself in the process. You can then take what you’ve learned and apply it to other similar situations in the future.

  10. Praveen Praveen

    Hai:

    I am suffering from feelings of guilt.
    How to seek forgiveness from somebody who is no longer in this world.

    Please help me.

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