How to Manage Guilt

“Negative emotions like loneliness, envy, and guilt have an important role to play in a happy life; they’re big, flashing signs that something needs to change.”    

–Gretchen Rubin

In my experience, guilt is mostly about a person’s core values, which are shaped by our culture, upbringing, and socialization. Some cultures use ‘guilting’ as a parenting strategy (i.e. to make children feel shameful about their behaviour in an effort to promote good little boys and girls). While this might work in the short-term, the underlying long-term message it conveys to the child is a lack of unconditional positive regard from the parent, meaning, (from the child’s perspective), if they do something undesirable, they will be subject to humiliation and possible rejection by their loved ones. This in turn seems to promote anxiety in the child (and later adult), because who wouldn’t feel anxious if they believed they were always on the verge of possible humiliation and guilt?

Moreover, it’s problematic because we often unconsciously absorb the values held by our culture, parents, and society, which form the basis of our internal self-monitoring system which guides us through life according to our morals and principles. That is, we learn lessons in childhood which form the basis of our values, and we tend to develop a subconscious parental-type voice we use to govern our own behaviour as adults to ensure we stay aligned with our idea of “being a good person” (as a generalization for most of us anyways). So in this way, guilt can become a predominant schema that automatically arises to keep ourselves in check, but it may not always be necessarily rationally-based or warranted. And if it tends to be a very strong automatic impulse, it can take over.

Some steps to managing guilt before it manages you:

  1. Let go of regret. We can’t undo the past, but we can learn from it and hear what our emotions have to say about our past decisions. In this way, we can welcome the lessons guilt has to offer and become transcended rather than stuck by them.
  1. Acknowledge the guilt and listen to what it is telling you. What’s the underlying message? Perhaps you feel you made a mistake, acted selfishly, or did something embarrassing and can’t get past it. What are ways you can reconcile these uncomfortable actions? Do you need to make amends with someone you care about? Do you need to change your approach going forward? Are you acting in a manner that respects both yourself and the other person involved? If you’ve done everything you can to handle the situation with the grace and integrity it deserves, simply acknowledge your guilt and move on. Often the most guilty are the most self-conscious, strongly principled individuals. So find reassurance in the fact that you’re likely very considerate overall, therefore others can forgive the odd well-intentioned mishap or two. No one’s perfect.

Mantra: We don’t have to let every automatic thought or feeling we have control us.

  1. Develop an internal dialogue with it (yes, I’m actually advocating for talking to yourself!) It might sound like this “Hi guilt. Thanks for telling me that this is important. I’ve done everything I can do to be kind, compassionate, and respectful in this situation. So I’m doing my best. I’ve got this one covered.” (You might remind yourself of all the associated efforts you’ve made –I like to count them on my fingers.) And try your best to move on. Note that it may take time for the guilt to subside, but once you’ve acknowledged and validated the feeling, it will tend to dissipate over time.
  1. Learn to Re-Parent Yourself Compassionately. No blaming here. Most of our parents did the best they could with what they had. But even still, some of their approaches to parenting may have inadvertently had a negative effect on us. If you think you’ve been parented by ‘guilting’ and are controlled by it as a result, learn to identify the guilt as it automatically arises and try re-parenting yourself using more affirming, compassionate language (i.e. instead of using self-shaming language e.g.: “I’m such an idiot! Why did I do that?!” try a more understanding reframe: “I made a mistake. It happens. How can I approach this differently in the future?”) This can help undo the patterns of your past and set you free!