Each of us has moral codes we live by, whether or not we are aware of them. These codes influence our values and life choices, and if we breach them somehow, we feel guilt.
While guilt is a sign that we are remorseful about past actions or events, the feeling can be appropriate or irrational.
Feeling guilty when you do something wrong is appropriate guilt, and it shows that your cognitive abilities and conscience are at work to help you recognize mistakes and wrongdoings so that you don’t repeat them.
Suffering unjustly and blaming yourself because you overestimated a mistake or wrongdoing is irrational guilt. Irrational guilt can be damaging and may result in anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems if left unaddressed.
But how can you tell what you feel is appropriate or irrational guilt?
Appropriate guilt helps you learn from mistakes, modify your behaviors, and do better in the future. On the other hand, irrational guilt does not let you move on. Instead, it traps you in a feeling of regret and self-blame.
If this is your experience, here’s how to stop feeling guilty and move on with your life.
How Does Irrational Guilt Look Like?
If you think thoughts that bring on a strong feeling of distress and make you judge yourself harshly for a past event, you are probably feeling guilty at that moment.
Ignoring this emotion can lead to a guilt complex over time, and when this happens, you’ll likely notice one or more of the following signs:
- Incessant worry
- Upset stomach
- Ruminating on past mistakes
- Muscle tension
- Social withdrawal
In extreme cases, living with a guilt complex can make you lose interest in your life’s goals because it creates a sense of unworthiness. You may unconsciously engage in self-punishment – doing things to punish yourself for your past mistakes.
If you feel inadequate or think you don’t deserve to be happy because you’ve hurt someone else, the feeling of guilt is negatively impacting your overall well-being, and you need to quickly address the situation.
6 Practical Tips on How to Stop Feeling Guilty
1. Accept the Past
You can’t undo the past; that’s a fact. And even if time travel is possible, the concept is far from what is portrayed in the movies, so you can’t do anything practical to change the past.
However, there are three important things you can do about the past.
First, you can accept that what’s happened has happened. Nothing you can do now can alter what has already happened, so make peace with that fact.
You’ve made the mistakes; you’ve said what you said or did what you did; realize that no amount of guilt can reverse it.
Secondly, you can learn from the past. After all, mistakes help us identify incorrect ways of doing things so that we can learn better ways to do them.
When you think about the past, try to focus on what you could have done better rather than wallow in regret and spend excessive time blaming yourself for your part in how things went down.
Thirdly, you may not be able to turn back the hands of time, but you certainly can change the effect of what has happened. Yes, you have the power to reverse and repair hurtful feelings and wrongdoings because these effects are only temporary.
And this brings me to the second practical tip on how to stop feeling guilty.
2. Forgive Yourself
Forgiveness takes a lot of courage, especially when it involves the one person who needs it most – yourself. Many guilt-prone people find it easier to forgive others but difficult to practice self-forgiveness.
Yet, you can’t truly move on from guilt without forgiving yourself.
Mistakes and wrongdoings of the past will keep haunting you if you don’t let yourself off the hook. Don’t hold yourself to an unreasonable standard of perfection. Recognize that everyone makes mistakes, and that doesn’t make you a bad person. Instead, it makes you human.
Guilt is a powerful self-conscious emotion that can easily make you define yourself by your mistakes if you don’t tackle them on time.
When you feel guilty about something in the past, you’re most likely evaluating yourself from a negative point of view. And if you don’t get a handle on this emotion, it can lead to a feeling of shame and self-isolation, making it more difficult to forgive yourself.
But forgiving yourself isn’t only about letting yourself off the hook if you’ve hurt someone or made a mistake. It requires the courage to take responsibility for your part in how things played out.
Next, self-forgiveness is incomplete without making amends. This means expressing regret, showing remorse, or apologizing for wrongdoings.
But don’t stop at mere words or shedding tears. Take things further by correcting what needs to be corrected. However, you must not allow a feeling of shame to overtake you when you make amends, as that would mean you are still overwhelmed by guilt.
Lastly, accept and love yourself for who you are, despite your flaws. Self-acceptance helps you trust that you can do better and be wiser in the future. It will help you see that you are a work in progress and it is okay to feel guilty for breaking your own moral codes, but you are now better than before.
3. Identify Your Guilt
Ruminating on the past isn’t a helpful strategy when you’re looking to move on from guilt. But that doesn’t mean you should try to ignore the emotion.
No doubt, when you stop paying attention to something, you remove its power to bother you. But that doesn’t work for unaddressed emotions; they will only grow stronger over time and make you feel worse.
Guilt won’t disappear just because you ignored the emotion. Of course, it won’t bother you at the moment, but it will come back to haunt you and may even affect the quality of your life unless you courageously address it.
It might not feel comfortable, but allowing yourself to feel the temporary discomfort, frustration, and other emotions associated with guilt can help you get to the root of the problem and put an end to it.
Finding it difficult to name your guilt? Here are three exercises I recommend you practice regularly to help you identify what’s causing the feeling of guilt.
- Meditation: Take a few moments daily to focus on your breath, body, and emotions. Meditation might sound like a practice reserved for monks and highly spiritual people, but just about anyone can do it. Setting aside 5 to 15 minutes daily to be present with your thoughts and feelings can help you get a handle on guilt and other resulting emotions.
- Mindfulness: Fully living in the present and inhabiting your moments can free you from ruminating on past hurtful memories. Instead of wasting time in regret, practice being present. Mindfulness takes your attention away from things you can’t change to the present, where all your power lies.
- Journaling: Find a quiet place and time where you can write down your thoughts in a journal. Write what you feel guilty about, but instead of judging yourself, be curious and explore why those things cause you so much distress.
4. Use Guilt as a Tool for Course Correction
Okay, I know that this may sound counterintuitive, but this is one of my best tips on stopping feeling guilty, moving on with your life, and even feeling thankful for the not-so-pleasant emotion of guilt.
But how can negative emotion be used as a helpful tool?
Here’s the good thing about guilt: it reminds you of things in your life that aren’t very satisfactory.
For example, you may feel guilty about not always being there for your friends or spending quality time with your family. Each time you feel the wave of guilt coming on about these circumstances, take that as your cue that you’re off track and need to take appropriate actions to get back on track.
What if you feel guilty about hurting someone? First, the so-called negative emotion is telling you something important: you have empathy! Secondly, take the guilt as your cue to learn from your actions or inactions which led to the hurtful feeling and avoid repeating the same mistake.
By the way, if you feel trapped in guilty because you stopped caring about someone, I recommend reading this post for practical steps on how to move on.
5. Reframe Your Negative Self-Talk
Self-criticism is often associated with guilt and can spiral into constant negative self-talk if left unchecked.
Everyone makes mistakes, from the dumbest to the brightest of us all. But no matter how terrible your mistakes may be, it doesn’t make you a bad person.
Unfortunately, the emotion of guilt can easily prevent you from seeing things from this perspective. Instead, it will force you into self-punishment and shaming yourself.
Anytime you catch yourself in the act of self-recrimination, stop and reframe the negative inner voice.
For example, if you cheated in an exam, you may engage in self-bashing inner talks such as, “I am such a dishonest person!”
Here’s the thing, though.
Yes, you may have messed up pretty badly and even face severe consequences, such as being caught and punished for cheating. But negative self-talk won’t help you heal and certainly won’t make it easier to move on.
Speak to yourself compassionately, just as you would a dear friend who needs your support. Stop reminding yourself of how poorly you behaved, and shift your focus to how to make things better next time.
In the above example, you could say, “What I did was wrong, but I now know better. I will continue studying harder to improve.”
With this statement, you’ve stopped the momentum of self-criticism, and you’re more focused on practical actions to ensure the mistake doesn’t repeat.
Of course, catching yourself in the act of self-criticism isn’t an easy thing to do, but you’ll get the hang of it with constant practice.
6. Share Your Feelings With Trusted Family or Friends
Many people find themselves going on the journey alone when dealing with guilt. That’s common because not many people feel comfortable talking about their mistakes and wrongdoings they regret.
One of the reasons you might find it hard to talk about your guilt is because you don’t want others to judge you. Unfortunately, unaddressed guilt can isolate you, emotionally distancing you from your support network.
You’ll likely feel lonely, anxious, and depressed, which can lead to mental health issues. Allowing guilt to isolate you can make it difficult to heal and move on.
However, talking about how you feel with family and friends can help you feel better about the situation and eventually overcome guilt.
Sharing your feelings is a way to find relief, but in addition to relieving tension, gaining outside perspective can help you see things in a different (usually more helpful) light.
When to See a Therapist
Sometimes, it is difficult to work through guilt and move on all by yourself without the help of a therapist. This is especially the case if you fear being judged by those closest to you, so you keep the feeling of regret to yourself and continue to ruminate on past issues that cause misery.
When guilt becomes persistent, it can:
- Take a toll on your daily life
- Affect your mental health
- Cause sleep issues
- Negatively impact your relationships
For this reason, I strongly recommend talking to a therapist if you can’t seem to get over regrets about the past and you experience depression or trauma.
Therapists can help you figure out where the guilt stems from, how to manage the feeling and the best ways to move on with your life.
Guilt is a normal part of life, and everyone experiences it now and then. Mistakes are bound to happen, and they help us become better.
Now you know how to stop feeling guilty, so the next time you feel an undercurrent of regret weighing down on your shoulder, practice the suggestions in this article to help you move past the emotional burden.