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We’ve all experienced those sinking feelings in the pit of our stomach when we feel we’ve done something wrong. We haven’t kept our word, we let someone down, we did something that we believe to be awful and we are left feeling terrible.

It doesn’t seem to matter much that what we did could easily have been forgiven or forgotten by those involved, except us.

Some guilt is good for us as a society, because it tends to modulate the actions we take and too little guilt not so good for our societies because we end up with a society totally lacking in motivation for control. 

On the other hand, too much guilt can be pretty bad for us as individuals, especially when we feel guilt for things no longer in our control, or are about what others would consider to be minor lapses in judgment. And before we can get on with our life we need to conquer toxic guilt because it will keep us imprisoned.

This is when we need to find a way to diminish and discourage the sort of guilt that can be toxic to our mind bodies and spirits and get on with our life.

As we think about guilt, it’s a good thing to bear in mind that it’s a past experience. It’s happened. Over and done with. And dwelling on it and continuing to feel guilt is sapping our life energy and poisoning our spirit.

So what should we do?

Changing your stories helps to conquer toxic guilt

Whatever our minds constantly return to on a consistent basis continues to be what we experience in our life. If you keep telling yourself stories of all that is wrong with you will be right because they become the picture of your life. One  that plays over and over.

This kind of inner dialogue turns us into our own worst enemies and before too long we end up internalizing these stories and fall into the rabbit hole of “There must be something wrong with me.”

It’s clear that the downside of guilt as individuals turns out to be far worse than any benefits. So the next time you’re  wondering how to diminish or conquer irrational guilt, take a listen to those stories and whether they’re hurting more than helping.

And you know what to do if they’re doing no-one any good!

Feeling bad doesn’t mean you’re bad

Once you begin to see yourself as this one dimensional person who’s clearly rotten to the core for the things they’ve done, the incentive to do better is less likely.

Think of being on a diet and breaking it, giving into the temptation of all those sweet somethings you’ve been avoiding and you decide that you’re the kind of person who has no self control. Where do you suppose that will lead?

Yep, you’re right, down that slippery slope back to your old eating habits of probably sugary, or fat filled, not-so-goodness. Because the belief you have no self control is not a belief that can lead you anywhere else.

The challenge is that as in all stories we tell ourselves the emotions connected to them are powerful, be they  feelings of guilt or shame. 

In other words if we feel bad, it must be true! How wrong can we be?  Our beliefs don’t have to be set in stone. We can change them if we choose and so change our future.

So how do we manage these beliefs and feelings?

Through a little forgiveness

Forgiving yourself is a huge step out of the mire of self-loathing, self-contempt or self-criticism.

Over the years there’s plenty of things I’ve done that have required forgiveness, some minor, some more major, but every one of them led me to feeling guilty or ashamed and for a long time I didn’t believe that  I deserved forgiveness, because clearly I was a terrible person. 

Where do you suppose that lead?

It’s probably no surprise to hear that I kept on punishing myself. Which tends to end up with the punishment becoming a life sentence. There’s no escape. 

Guilt.  Shame.  Punishment.  An unending cycle of misery.

We’re human, we’re not ever going to be perfect, but we don’t have to spend our life repenting, or dishing out self-punishment until we become paralyzed about taking any action, other than living in this unending cycle of regret and guilt.

And when we start to come from a place of self-compassion and forgiveness, we realize we have the ability to handle our mistakes and as we do so, we learn how to overcome and conquer toxic guilt and escape from the self-imposed prison we are in.

The pain of the past continues to keep us in its grip unless and until we make new choices about how to deal with it. 

I had to come to terms with healthy or unhealthy guilt before I could allow myself some self-compassion.

A word of warning, once you get ready to forgive yourself now, you’ll need to also accept you have to forgive yourself in the future. It took a while for me to see this truth. That we are all going to mess up again.

Here’s something that might help with that.

The possibility principle

There are no guarantees in life, but it is filled with possibilities.

Despite your past, despite any ongoing feelings of guilt it’s still possible for you to open your mind and heart to fresh ideas, different options and new decisions on how to deal with guilt for old choices and actions.

You can choose to be haunted by guilt or you can use it as a learning tool. You can stop beating yourself up or you can step up and apologize if you hurt someone else, wherever that’s  possible. 

Don’t apologize for what you think you did wrong, but try to see what they think you did wrong.

Apologies do matter.

Research shows there are emotional benefits to both the giver and receiver of apologies.

The next step is gratitude.

Be grateful that you’re creating change.

Shifting your perspective from self-judgement and criticism to gratitude changes your energy system. Gratitude is one of the easiest and fastest ways to rid our system of overpowering guilt.  It reprograms our brain and goes hand in hand with more optimism and less anxiety.

Put that magnifying glass down

You did something rotten. You were mean and insulting.Or you did something that you consider even worse. 

It’s not good. Nobody says it is. But how long should you feel badly about it?  Weeks, months, years?

It’s unlikely that we’d spend a year in prison for getting stopped for a minor traffic offense. I know this to be true because it’s happened to me. And prison time was never on the cards.

Yet here we are sentencing ourselves to months or years of emotional pain, often for things that don’t warrant it.

David Burns, M.D in his book, Feeling Good helps differentiate between a healthy sense of remorse and regret and unhealthy guilt. He asks:

What sentence will you choose to impose on yourself? Are you willing to stop suffering and making yourself miserable when your sentence has expired? This would at least be a responsible way to punish yourself because it would be time-limited. 

Which begs the question, how rational are we when we’re not willing to stop suffering? And how long are we going to continue to magnify the guilt, given that everything we focus on tends to grow bigger. 

Guilt like fear can stop you in your tracks. It becomes compounded and magnified the more often you visit it, until it becomes a habit of our Being.

Our minds are creatures of habit and it’s up to us to begin to magnify thoughts and feelings that will positively influence our future actions.

This is the path to releasing ourselves from what we have determined are the awful things we did or didn’t do in the past. 

Plus we then have a road map towards conquering those toxic feelings of guilt that help no-one, but hurt us.

Give it some thought. Is it time to give yourself a break?

Why not change your old stories?. Practice a little self-compassion. Make amends where you can. Let go and get on with your life.

Perhaps we all need to remember that sometimes we do things we wish we hadn’t but that doesn’t make us unforgivable human beings.

Elle Sommer
Elle Sommer is the author of 4 books and a workbook. Her latest publications are a series called The Power of Consciousness, and you will find all three books in this trilogy now available on Kindle. She shares quotes, inspiration and positive vibes on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. And her greatest desire is to encourage and inspire others to create not just a good life, but a phenomenal life.

4 Comments

  1. Good advice. Our self totally dictates our experience of this life and colors our mental health. As you say, “Whatever our minds constantly return to on a consistent basis continues to be what we experience in our life.” And the cool thing is that we can change and influence this with practices and mental health tools like you suggest. This is the power each of us has to change our lives! Thank you for the reminder.

    • Great words of encouragement Debbie, we can change and influence our life with practice and some simple tools.

  2. Elle, Thank you for this much needed encouragement. Guilt can be such a visceral feeling, which can make it a little more difficult to shake. But you’re right, it will only be worse if we tell ourselves bad stories about ourselves. Everyone makes mistakes. We need to have compassion for ourselves when we flub up.

    • So true Sandra…it’s not always easy to get there – guilt seems to be such a big part of life. We can but practice letting go.

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