Moving on from Guilt

Over the course of our lives upto this point, we all have probably done a few things we regret. Mistakes are normal to human growth. Still, the guilt that creeps in and stakes out space in your consciousness can cause plenty of emotional and physical turmoil.

You might know guilt best as the nauseating twist in your stomach that accompanies the knowledge you’ve hurt someone else. Perhaps you also struggle with recurring self-judgment and criticism related to your memories of what happened and your fear of others finding out.

As an emotion, guilt has a lot of power.

Guilt helps you acknowledge your actions and fuels your motivation to improve your behaviour. It might also lead you to fixate on what you could have done differently. If you’ve never felt able to come clean about a mess-up, your guilt might feel magnified to an almost unbearable degree.

Though guilt can sometimes promote positive growth, it can linger and hold you back — long after others have forgotten or forgiven what happened.

Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything—anger, guilt, or possessions—we cannot be free.

Thich Nhat Hanh

If you struggle with letting go of feelings of guilt you’re absolutely not alone. Most of us have all been there and continue to harbour feelings of shame or guilt about things long in the past. In the spirit of moving forward, here are seven ways to move on from guilty feelings.

1. Address It Sooner Rather Than Later
The sooner we address what’s making us guilty, the less time it has to weigh us down. If the guilt is legitimate, and making amends is relatively easy then we should minimize the self-punishment phase and allow ourselves to move forward by apologizing.

2. Remember, No One Is Perfect
Remember that absolutely no one is perfect, and we all make mistakes. Don’t engage in days, weeks or months of self-blame or battering your self-esteem because you should’ve known, should’ve acted differently, or should’ve been an ideal person. You’re not, and neither am I. That’s just life. Once you’re tried your best to make amends, try to let it go and not be so hard on yourself.

3. Don’t Keep It To Yourself
Talking out your guilt or the incident that caused it with a relative/friend can be extremely therapeutic. Secrecy is the intensifier of guilt. Once you’ve bared something that you find troubling and discover that your friend isn’t nearly as shocked as you thought he or she would be, the guilt begins to drain away and you feel better.

4. Give Yourself A Reality Check
Make sure your guilt is actually legitimate and not coming from a standard or expectation placed on you earlier in life, or even over something that isn’t upsetting anyone else.

5. Write It Down
Try writing your feelings of guilt and shame down in a journal when you’re having trouble getting past them. Write down all of your thoughts and feelings honestly, then ask yourself some questions, like: Do I need to hold onto these thoughts and feelings anymore? How would changing these thoughts or feelings make a difference in my life? How is guilt holding me back?

6. Remember Your Self-Preservation Matters
Always remember that your self-preservation matters. Maybe you couldn’t make it to your friend’s party because you were just too swamped that week, or couldn’t make it to your family member’s 30th because airline tickets were just too expensive. You are entitled to look out for your self-interest just as much as anyone else, and sometimes that means saying no or disappointing others. Remind yourself that your actions are valid, and don’t let others guilt-trip you into believing otherwise.

While guilt can often help us learn a valuable lesson, other times it weighs on us way longer than it should, affecting our self-esteem and our ability to move on. If you’re having trouble letting go, try to remember that everyone has been there and no one is perfect!

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