Letting Go of Guilt

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Notes from the Desk of
The Neighborhood Shrink

I have many clients who have difficulty letting go of guilt. Their guilt may be for things that happened recently or it may be for things that happened long ago. The impact of their guilt can range from discomfort in certain situations up to a sense of great despair.

Underlying personality characteristics of some of these folks include low self-worth, a willingness to put too much stock in the opinion of others, and excessive worrying. They also spend an inordinate amount of time looking in life's rear view mirror.

Many times people with extreme guilt were raised by either judgmental/critical parents or caregivers who never really affirmed that what they were feeling was okay. In other words when trying to identify or express their feelings, they were told not to have them. Stereotypically, girls may be told that having anger is not ladylike, and boys may be told of being sad or crying is not manly. They never really get a good grasp of what some feelings are because they are told to shut them down. In psychology this is called repressing feelings.

Another common feature personality-wise of people who foster lots of guilt, is that they will passively carry grudges against others. If you think about it, guilt is essentially maintaining a grudge against yourself. It is kind of mental masochism. It helps no one. Nonetheless, letting go of guilt can be difficult for many people and takes time.

The first part of moving on is identifying the things or people that lead you to feel guilty. (It may be time to break out your journal or list again. Carry it with you for a few days or a few weeks and begin to record the times when you feel guilty). Think of current and past situations. Think of unresolved issues having to do with relationships (one of the most common causes of lingering guilt). Also consider where you are in your life, what you "should" have accomplished, and where you have "failed".

One of the principles that helps to relieve yourself of guilt is the acceptance of, and the embracing of, the fact that you are imperfect. You have flaws, freckles, bad breath, and sometimes regret saying or doing things that you have said or done. There have been instances in your life where you really blew it. There have been times in your relationships when you have been selfish, impulsive, and possibly downright mean. You have stepped right over your own values and done things that are principally wrong. You don’t eat right, you don’t wear sunscreen when you should, and you don’t call your mother often enough. At times your procrastination is over the top, you spank your children when it would be better to speak frankly to them, and you really need to lose weight! You are as imperfect as the rest of us and once you begin to accept this point, letting go of your guilt may be easier.

Next, consider specific actions you might take to do all that you can to resolve your guilt. One of the most important things is seeking (and getting) forgiveness. For the most part long-term guilt is an irrational emotion. It benefits no one (with the exception of people who have not learned from it and have the potential to repeat their mistakes if they do not hold onto it). While emotions like guilt can be beneficial over the short haul, because it lets us know when we are going against the grain, long-term guilt really serves no purpose. Here are some cognitive and behavioral interventions you might consider to help you decrease the amount of guilt you carry around. Remember, at the end of this process you want to be able to tell yourself that you have done all that you can to make things better. You have accepted your imperfection and are ready to move on.

Asking for forgiveness - the key

Asking for forgiveness is an essential ingredient in relieving guilt. Look at the list of situations you have identified that lead you to feel guilty. Who do you need to speak with? If you decide to ask for forgiveness, understand that the other person may not be willing to let go. You must be able to tell yourself that you have done all that you can and move on. For example:

Becky and Tina used to be best of friends. They went to high school together and later participated in each other's weddings. As time went on Tina became more emotionally distant, becoming involved in her family and work. She recognized that Becky was feeling somewhat left out, but did not choose to do anything about it. Now she is feeling some remorse about letting the friendship go.

She decided to approach Becky and ask about reconciliation. She genuinely and earnestly apologized for letting things get distant, acknowledged her part in doing so, and asked for Becky's forgiveness. However, at that time, Becky was still too hurt. While she didn't say so, she had no intention of putting the friendship back together. Tina experienced a considerable amount of guilt. She blamed herself for the problems in the relationship and was feeling the sting of a lost friend.

When you step back and look at this you will recognize that Tina has done all that she can. She apologized, she acknowledged her part in the process, and asked for forgiveness. Becky's decision to carry a grudge is not in Tina's control. While letting go of their friendship might not be easy for Tina, it may be necessary. She can leave Becky with the message that the door is always open (if she wishes). But it is time to move on. If she begins to feel guilty about the situation, she must use the cognitive intervention of reminding herself that she has done everything that she can. While this may take some practice, it is essential to confront irrational emotions with alternative thought.

Forgiveness comes in many forms including self-forgiveness. After she has asked for forgiveness from Becky, she must also forgive herself. This same thing is true if you consider any part of your life a "failure". At some point you must acknowledge that it is all about learning, not about getting it perfectly all the time. Forgive yourself for screwing up and move on.

Many times my clients will discover that the things they feel so guilty about have either been forgotten by the other person, or did not impact their lives to the level that my clients think it did. They have been carrying around all of this guilt for nothing. Don’t be surprised if this happens in your instance. Apologize nonetheless, ask for forgiveness, and move on if they are unwilling to forgive you.

Another cognitive process I would have you consider as a way to deal with guilt has to do with the Neighborhood Shrink Note, Blame = Expectations. As you think about the situations you have identified that lead you to feel guilty, also consider how you blame yourself. You might be thinking that the person could never forgive you, that the incident was all your fault (rarely the case), and that you ought to feel guilty for the rest of your life. In this instance, reverse the formula. Take a look at your expectations and begin to change them. Understand that nothing is forever, that many people can forgive, and that it is not necessary for you to feel overly guilty. If you’re able to accomplish this cognitive process, your self-blame may diminish.

You might recognize the frame of this process. In recovery circles, identifying your imperfections, listing people who you have harmed, and making amends (except when doing so would injure them or others1) is part of the healing and recovery process.

What other things might you do that can help you believe you have done all that you can? [NOTE: the idea behind “doing things” is that it is very difficult to just change the way we feel. When we change what we’re doing and thinking, the way we feel goes along with it. So do something!] When you have done all that you can (behavior) you potentiate the ability to change what you think. You can tell yourself that even though you are imperfect, you did the best you could to make things better, and there is nothing more that you can do (cognitive).

I should also acknowledge that shame is many times an element of feeling guilty. Instead of telling themselves what they did was wrong, some people tell themselves that who they are is wrong. Bradshaw’s book listed below may help you with that.

So, check yourself. Are you a guilt carrier? Do you have difficulty forgiving yourself for things that have passed? Have you attempted to make amends with those who you may have harmed? Have you checked inside yourself as to the source of your shame? If you’re looking for motivation to move ahead, I would ask you to consider what your life would be like if you felt less guilty and more self assured over the next couple of months?

Stay tuned in the near future for a Note from the Desk of the Neighborhood Shrink dealing with emotional extortion (you know - those people who use guilt to get what they want).

Here are some other great resources that might help you with your guilt:

Bradshaw, John (1988) Healing the shame that binds you. Health Communications, Inc.-Deerfield Beach, Florida

Smith, Manuel J. (1985) When I say no I feel guilty. Bantam Books.

1 If contacting someone to apologize might do harm to them, you should reconsider. Situations such as abuse, violence, or other details that might psychologically or physically harm someone should be ruled out.

Chip’s practice has a no-nonsense, solution focused approach to counseling therapy and coaching for anyone who needs help.

He offers several Mental Health Professional seminars, including self care for professionals, technology for private practice, and Initial Assessment Review.

He also offers a full complement of corporate training including Stress Management, Giving Great Customer Service, and Dealing With Difficult People.


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"Letting Go of Guilt" was just what I needed to read. It's practical and not written from a hoity-toity, holier-than-though perspective. Thanks so much! …

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