Sometimes guilt is appropriate. It links you to your moral compass and spurs you to right your wrongs.
Too often though, guilt crosses the line. By ruminating about past actions, guilt keeps you stuck and unchecked. It can lead to depression and suicidal thoughts.
Keep reading for 13 practical tips on letting go of guilt and forgive yourself.
Let’s dive right into it.
1. Explore The Source
Before you can successfully navigate guilt, recognize where the thinking error comes from.
It’s normal to feel guilty when you know you’ve done something wrong, but guilt can also take root in response to events you didn’t have much, or anything, to do with.
Take note when you unnecessarily blame yourself for things you can’t control.
Some common causes of guilt include:
- surviving trauma or disaster
- conflict between personal values and choices you’ve made
- mental or physical health concerns
- thoughts or desires you believe you shouldn’t have
- taking care of your own needs when you believe you should focus on others
2. Right Any Outstanding Wrongs
Of course, not all guilt is an illusion. If you feel guilty about a wrong, go ahead and make amends if the individual is still around.
Yes, it’s awkward to reach out and you’ll find a million excuses not to. But most likely, you’ll be glad you did. A heartfelt apology and offer to make things right will soothe your conscience.
Related: Best Ways To Learn Acceptance And Letting Go
3. Take Responsibility For Your Feelings
Without taking responsibility for your own feelings, your emotions will forever be controlled by others.
It’s more difficult to let go of guilt when you don’t let yourself work on changing things.
4. Find Ways To Feel Good About Yourself
Holding on to guilt leaves you feeling you’re not worthy of feeling good. So instead, find joy and pleasure in other areas of your life.
Replace guilty feelings by finding things that make you feel good about yourself.
Related: Ways To Let Go And Trust The Universe
5. Take Care Of Yourself
Everyone deserves to feel good. By holding onto guilt you let yourself believe you’re pretty horrible and not taking care of your mental and physical needs well.
So find a quiet place to let go and take care of yourself with kindness.
6. Forgive And Move On
You can overcome guilt if you let go and forgive others for things they’ve done to you too. Then move on in your life.
Remember to include forgiving yourself the same way.
7. Talk About It
When it comes to the past, silence can be deadly. Free yourself from the bondage of holding it all in. Let go of the guilt.
Talk about what’s tearing you apart inside and express what you feel to a counselor, mentor, or friend you can trust.
Related: Effective Ways How To Let Go Of Expectations
8. Accept Forgiveness
It is what it is. We all make mistakes in life. It’s part of learning and living. You do have a choice.
Either allow what happened before to keep you in a rut of guilt and regret…or accept it for what it is, let go and resolve to do better because you know you can. Self-acceptance and forgiveness are critical to your emotional and mental health.
9. Learn From The Past
You can’t mend every situation, and some mistakes might even cost you a treasured old friend.
You can’t rewrite events by replaying scenarios with different outcomes, but you can always consider the knowledge you’ve learned:
- What led to the mistake? Explore triggers that prompted your action and any
feelings that tipped you over the edge.
- What would you do differently now?
- What did your actions tell you about yourself? Do they point to any specific behaviors you can work on?
10. Practice Gratitude
People form relationships to build a community that can offer support.
You’d probably want to show up for your friends if they needed help and emotional support. Most likely, you wouldn’t want them to feel guilty and stress about their struggles either.
Cultivate gratitude by:
- thanking loved ones for their kindness
- making your appreciation clear
- acknowledging any opportunities you’ve gained as a result of their support
- committing to paying this support forward once you’re on more solid ground
Related: Effective Ways To Move On Without Closure
11. Guilty In Some Way
Every one of us is guilty in some way – for all the good we didn’t do in our lives – the kind words never spoken, and the good deeds left undone.
We can’t change that in the present moment – what has been is behind us. We can still make the best of today with the knowledge we have now. Yes, perhaps there’s a lot more we all could have done, so let the guilt remind us to do better next time.
12. Passing It On
Some people like passing guilt and blame onto other people. Playing the blame game to find you guilty, pass judgments, tell stories, and actually make you believe in your own guilt isn’t impossible.
Even when you know you’re innocent (or deserve forgiveness). Don’t condemn yourself just to satisfy other people’s drama.
13. Someone Hates You
If someone says they hate you, whatever their reason, it’s their own issue. Everything they say about you after that is more or less meaningless.
Hate is irrational – when hatred judges, the verdict is always guilty. The same is true when we hate ourselves for something – we can’t possibly vindicate ourselves and grow from the experience.
Related: 101+ Things To Let Go Of To Find Happiness
How Do You Get Rid Of Feelings Of Guilt?
When you feel guilty it’s a sign to make an adjustment, not self punishment. Just don’t stay there for long. Make the necessary adjustments to shift your emotional state.
Too often, we punish ourselves for previous mistakes, as if that could somehow “make up” for what we’ve done. We walk through each day feeling lower than a worm’s belly.
Though no one else may know about our secret pain, the negative emotions from this thinking error gnaw away at joy and satisfaction in our lives.
The hardest one to forgive for previous actions is yourself. Not the other person who backstabbed you. Or the dad that wasn’t there for you.
Why? Because you think you had the same awareness then as you do now. Truthfully though, you didn’t.
Now that you do know, you can make better choices.
- So let go of the guilt
- Forgive yourself
- Make amends
- Finally, vow to do better next time
Read here for How To Let Go Of Shame
What Is The Root Cause Of Guilt?
Guilt can be the source of major personal distress and problems in many areas of your life. The root cause of the emotion of guilt lets us know our actions or behaviors conflict with our values and beliefs.
The good thing is your feelings let you know this and you can do something about it.
Many different events or situations can lead to feelings of guilt, such as:
- An event that occurred in your life
- Something you didn’t do or wish you hadn’t done (survivor’s guilt)
- Who you are as a human rather than what you’ve done (goes hand in hand with shame)
- Hurting someone’s feelings, having let someone down, or not been there for them, etc. (towards others)
- Things out of your control, such as natural disasters or other peoples’ actions
- An internal type of punishment for things you feel you should’ve done differently
For more insights read, Do Narcissists Feel Guilt? 4 Key Insights
How To Let Go Of Guilt And Forgive Myself
Guilt happens to share a lot of symptoms with depression; and depression can develop within someone with severe guilt issues. This is why it is incredibly important that people having issues with guilt remember to seek help.
If you’re having trouble:
- Practice being mindful about what actually happened to cause your negative opinion of yourself.
- Try talking to a professional
- Seek out one-on-one or group therapy
Chances are, if you were to think about yourself in a calm and rational light, you’d agree you don’t deserve to feel as badly as you do.
Read, I Don’t Deserve To Be Happy – Expert Tips To Change This for more insights.
How To Let Go Of Guilt After Hurting Someone
We’ve all been there. You’ve hurt your best friend, brother, or colleague. You know it was a bad idea. So now what?
There are steps you can take that will help you feel better about yourself. Here’s how:
1. First, Remember It’s Okay To Feel Guilty
Every emotion gives us information. Rather than push it aside, pay attention to what the feelings in your body are telling you.
It helps us repair the damage from poor choices that might remain.
2. Understand The Difference Between Guilt And Shame
With guilt, you tend to understand exactly what your mistake was, why you made the mistake, and how you can repair the situation.
With shame, you’re wallowing in feelings of unworthiness because of the guilt. This leads to mental health issues.
Related: Is Talking To Yourself Bad? 16 Scientific Reasons Why It Isn’t
3. Own Your Mistakes And Admit Them
You may struggle with admitting you’ve done something bad, but denial gets you into even deeper trouble.
We use denial as a way to protect ourselves from feeling bad with guilt. While it may be more comfortable, ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away.
It may not be your proudest moment, but it’s part of your evolution towards becoming a better person.
Offer a heartfelt apology and do your best to right any outstanding wrongs. Listen and be open to however that person responds without pressuring or demanding forgiveness.
Your goal here is to right the misdeed and feel good about yourself again. You can’t control when or if someone else forgives you. But if you’ve done what you can to make amends then you can move on. Give that person space if they ask for it.
5. Imagine How Forgiveness Would Feel
Visualize being forgiven. How does your body feel? What emotions arise? What actions would you take?
A vivid imagining of how forgiveness would feel, both inside and out, can help true self-forgiveness come to fruition.
6. Write Yourself An Apology
Include how you offered remorse to others and how you plan to make amends. Write down what you’ll do differently next time, then, read what you’ve written out loud.
Be in acceptance of having disappointed yourself, then find strength in the knowledge this one error doesn’t define you.
Finally, remember to be kind because you can’t heal in a punitive environment.
Related: Ways To Let Go Of Someone You Love And Move Forward
How To Stop Feeling Guilty When You’ve Done Nothing Wrong
Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical psychologist at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD), wrote in Scientific American about a question from a podcast listener, Lou, who says, “”How do I let go of guilt? I feel guilty about everything, even things I haven’t done!”
Lou notes that she was pretty horrible as a teenager and hasn’t forgiven herself for being so selfish and careless back then.
She also worries that she’s equally awful now and just isn’t aware of it.
A lot of what the mental health world knows about guilt comes from research with combat veterans. At the root of too much guilt lie four common thinking errors that Ellen Hendriksen feels are universal and often conspire to make us feel inappropriately guilty.
1. Challenge Hindsight Bias
To challenge hindsight bias is to question the mistaken belief that the outcome was known at the time.
A surefire way to spot hindsight bias guilt is the phrase, “I should have known.”
What did you actually know at the time?
For instance, switch “I should have known she was depressed,” to “I wish I had known she was depressed, but I didn’t know one way or the other.” It’s not a copout—it’s the truth.
2. Challenge Your Assumption of Lack Of Justification
This is when we believe there was no good reason for the course of action we took—that we “should have done better”. When we feel guilty about an outcome, it’s often because of two things.
First, we believe there must have been a path to a better outcome. Second, we think we had the resources required for the ideal outcome at the time, even if we didn’t.
To sum it all up, don’t hold actions of another time to the standards, skills, maturity, and wisdom of today.
3. Challenge Your Sense Of Over Responsibility
When you feel solely responsible for something that happened, or mostly responsible, dig a little deeper—likely there exist a host of contributing factors that all add up.
4. Challenge Your Belief Of Wrongdoing
This is a belief that you purposely caused offense or violated your values. There’s a difference between knowingly doing harm versus a bad outcome unfolding unintentionally.
Sometimes, we do find intent. We feel guilty for actual wrongdoing. We actually did spread a rumor about our ex. We did throw the intern under the bus at the meeting. In this case, guilt is appropriate. However, among the grief-prone among us, it sometimes grows out of proportion.
How To Let Go Of Guilt And Regret
Develop realistic expectations. Evaluate the expectations you (and others) set for you.
If you find yourself never being able to measure up—no matter how hard you try—you may choose to change a few things in your approach to life. Healthy expectations are achievable and fulfilling, not draining and overwhelming.
Letting go of guilt and regret is tough. It means striking a deal with yourself to:
- Live in the present
- Stop beating yourself up about something that happened two or five or ten years ago
- Banish guilt and regrets from controlling your thoughts and behaviors
- Accept and respect yourself as you are…in spite of your screw-ups
Helpful tips for Reasons Why My Past Does Not Define Me.
How To Let Go Of Guilt In A Relationship
Whether or not you can reconcile with your partner after having hurt them remains to be seen. That decision is going to be theirs to make. All you can truly do is try to show them that your remorse is genuine.
Look at the following ways to handle the guilty feelings that you have.
- Sincerely apologize – He or she might not be speaking to you so leave them space before you apologize to your partner properly. Attempt to do so when they’re ready to listen to what you have to say.
- Recognize that you can’t change what happened – you can only change your behavior in the future.
- Remember that actions speak louder than words – an apology won’t mean much if your actions aren’t backing up what you have been saying.
- Work on improving yourself – so then next time you can do better.
- Focus on the positive – don’t dwell on the guilt , it’s important to be able to move on.
Read this for Emotional Reactivity – Ways To Be More Mature.
What Organ Does Guilt Affect?
Guilt is an emotion that can affect the body in many different ways.
Here are some ways guilt is known to affect different organs.
- Exhaustion and feeling physically weighed down
- According to Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) guilt may lead to:
- Qi stagnation may cause blood stasis, affecting any organ and especially the lungs, heart, liver and kidneys
- Under certain conditions, guilt may also cause sinking of Qi and affect the kidneys causing some urinary problems or menstrual problems from sinking of Qi.
- The tongue has a red tip and possibly purple body.
- While mostly psychological, some physical effects can include insomnia, a loss of appetite, and an overall dreary feeling.
- Studies have shown, guilt can shorten your life and weaken your immune system.
- Guilt has been shown to increase cortisol levels. Cortisol is a stress hormone your body makes as part of its “fight or flight” response.
Constant exposure to high cortisol can increase blood pressure and your risk of:
- Heart disease
- Anxiety disorders
- Guilt is associated with activity in the prefrontal cortex, the logical-thinking part of the brain. Guilt can also trigger activity in the limbic system.
Flip Side Of Guilt
There is a flip side. According to Ellen Hendriksen, clinical psychologist at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, who has written several articles on guilt in Scientific American and Huffington Post, “Guilt makes us feel lower than a worm’s belly.
The fact that we can feel guilt is actually a good sign. Guilt is a sign of empathy and a signal that you care about not hurting others.”
Ellen Hendricksen says, according to two researchers in British Columbia, “guilt shows you have compassionate morality.”
So as reassurance to her listener from the story above, the simple fact that she worries that Lou notes, “she’s equally awful” is a sign that she’s not—Lou, if you were truly an awful person, you wouldn’t be worried about it.
The flip side of a guilty, suffering spirit is far more open to love and grace than an uncaring or smug soul. So, in a backwards way, it’s good news.
A feeling of guilt about what you’ve done means you want to be able to make amends.
You might experience guilt in such a powerful way that it feels as though you have little or no control over it. Although it isn’t easy, you can banish your guilty thoughts by monitoring them and living with awareness.
It’s time for self care and for showing yourself love and respect.
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