Guilt, ugh…It’s uncomfortable, it’s heavy, and if you don’t do something about it, it can fester and hang around indefinitely. So, what can you do about it?
First, separate the things you feel guilty about into two categories: true guilt vs false guilt. I encourage my clients to write or type these things out if that’s helpful. True guilt are those things that we’ve done, or decisions that we’ve made, that rub against our morals and values. False guilt are those things that we convince ourselves are our fault, so we let them spin around in our head like a never-ending hamster wheel.
Now that you’ve got your lists, let’s address the stuff on the true guilt list first. Looking at your true guilt list, think of ways you could possibly rectify the wrong doing in order to help yourself find closure. Often times this means asking someone else (or sometimes asking ourselves) for forgiveness. This asking of forgiveness could be done in a covert or overt way. Covert forgiveness may look like writing an apology letter to someone without sending it or maybe ripping it up or destroying it in a meaningful way instead. The point is, you’ve given a voice to those feelings of guilt and oftentimes this act can bring closure. Overt forgiveness may look like actually sending that letter or speaking with the person directly in order to apologize and ask for their forgiveness. This is also the time where, if my client is spiritual and/or religious, we discuss how it may be helpful to chat with their spiritual advisor(s) about guilt and forgiveness.
Next, it’s time to take care of that false guilt. It can be difficult sometimes to tell if something is true or false guilt because false guilt can feel so true to us! Here’s what you need to know, false guilt typically comes with a lot of “shoulds”. As psychologists Clayton Barbeau and Albert Ellis suggest, we need to stop “shoulding” and “musterbating” ourselves because, in reality, there are only a handful of things we “should” or “must” do. Such as “I should wear my seat belt” or “I should eat a balanced diet to stay healthy.” When you hear yourself using the word “should” while discussing guilt, notice it, and say the sentence again changing “should” to “I wish” or “It would have been better”. So the guilt-ridden thought “I shouldn’t have stayed in that relationship for so long! I should have known he/she/they was/were going to hurt me!” is better said “I wish I wouldn’t have stayed in that relationship for as long as I did. It would have been better had I noticed his/her/their hurtful tendencies and had the assertiveness skills and confidence to stand up for myself.” Notice how the latter feels lighter and doesn’t weigh us down as much as shoulding ourselves. This is because it reminds us of why the thing happened in the first place. I didn’t do anything “wrong” per say, but rather it was my subconscious denial that didn’t want me to see his hurtful tendencies as well as my lack of assertiveness and confidence that caused me to stay in a difficult relationship. Therein lies the next step of managing false guilt; remind yourself that this is false guilt and not true guilt because there was truly no wrong-doing done.
Lastly, offer yourself some compassion for having gone through that difficult situation. We’re all human, we all deserve some grace and the opportunity to learn how to let go of guilt.