Guilt is something that is experienced by even the best of us. In fact, it usually only happens to those with a conscience because we tend to hold ourselves responsible for things more so.
Having a conscience is good but sometimes we tend to over generalize things and attribute event to our own actions even when we had very little or nothing to do with them. Sometimes we may have been unintentionally responsible for them. Sometimes we may have actually made mistakes. The result is massive guilt that does not let us sleep at night.
In my life, like everyone else, I too have made some mistakes I am not proud of. Some of them were things I intentionally did in the past and some are more recent events. Had I not applied these strategies, it would be difficult for me to live a happy and fulfilling life despite the events of the past.
So in this piece I will share with you the 4 strategies that have worked for me in effectively dealing with guilt. If they have practically worked for me, there is a good chance they will work for you as well. Here they are!
1) Distinguish between events that were your fault and those that weren’t
The factor of the matter is that you are not even responsible for many of the things you do feel guilty about. Life is extremely unpredictable and most of the things that happen are not under your control at all.
If someone decides to commit suicide in front of your car, is it your fault? Of course not. If someone on a motorbike who is not wearing a helmet, ignores traffic signals and drives rashly and gets hit by your car, is it your fault? No! You can’t even be charged for causing death by negligence unless you yourself were driving rashly or were driving drunk.
There is no doubt that these incidents are shocking and affect you emotionally on a very deep level. This is one of the reasons why people suffer from guilt even when they were not responsible for things.
In the last one year a major event has happened that has led to the passing away of someone because of a heart attack. I rarely interacted with them personally and was extremely polite the one time I did, but they were extremely dear to someone who matters a lot to me.
Prior to their passing, they were quite stressed. But almost everyone is stressed in today’s world due to some reason or the other. Yet after their passing, I suffered from guilt.
But when I talked to people I trusted about it, they made me understand that I did not give them heart disease, reminded that I had been extremely polite in the one time I interacted with them and had been respecting their wishes for the longest time as well. So when I did not do anything intentional or even unintentional to harm them, how could I blame myself for what was probably destined?
Thus it is important to be objective and take a hard look at your actual role. Did you intentionally cause this to happen? And if you did not, then it is important to move on. But how do you do so? Well you do so with the help of people whom you trust like I did.
But there are situations where you actually do the wrong things and now feel guilty? What do you do then?
2) Realize that you will make mistakes, as will everyone else.
The greatest people all over the world have committed mistakes they regretted later. These people may have been idols and role models to a large number of people but they were not free of their follies. Look at the lives of any great person in history, they have often done some not so admirable things.
Edison, for example, exploited Nikola Tesla and then tried his best to suppress his inventions when he went his separate ways. From using him and then not paying him as promised to sending goons to burn down his lab to electrocuting an elephant to prove him wrong, it’s evident that Edison did not treat the equally great (or greater) genius called Tesla with much respect. On his death bed, Edison admitted that he should have treated Tesla with much more respect than he did. And yet Edison is almost universally considered someone who should be admired, as he should, because his contributions outweigh his negative traits.
And not just great men, if you read the holy books of any religion, they all have characters committing sins despite the fact they are considered universally positive. In the Ramayan, which is one of the most famous epics in Hinduism, Ram who is considered to be an incarnation of God and is almost universally considered an ideal son and an ideal husband abandoned his wife only because someone in his kingdom questioned her chastity.
We all have a gray side, none of us can keep our hands to our heart and say we never did anything wrong. We all make mistakes, some are grave, some are less so. Some are intentional and others are not, but if you are not able to forgive yourself for it or at least move on with your lives, you will be paralyzed.
I have done a few things intentionally that I regretted, especially when I was a teenager. I did not behave well with my parents, I did not treat their money with respect and I was a bully with some kids even though I faced bullying myself.
Am I proud of these things? Of course not. Do I wish they did not happen, yes. But everyone makes mistakes and even more so when they are young. When I studied people all over the world and found that even the great leaders and even someone considered a God was not above mistakes, how could I, a common man not commit any? Realizing this truth made it much easier for me to forgive myself and move on.
3) Do not obsess over what happened. Stop ruminating about the past.
It is okay to be nostalgic and remember the good times or admit that you made mistakes, but if you get caught up in the cycle of negative thinking repeatedly, then you are ruining your life. You can imagine all that you could have done differently, but honestly does it matter anymore? Learn from your mistakes, but don’t obsess about those mistakes. That will only feed unbearable guilt.
Your brain actually changes depending upon where you divert your attention and that is the basis of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that is used to treat depression and anxiety disorders without involving medicines.
If you focus on negative things you will only spiral downwards and become guilt ridden to the point that you may even become suicidal. In fact many such incidents have happened where people become so guilt ridden that they end up committing suicide months or years after the actual event happened.
If only they got the help they needed and learned that ruminating about the past isn’t the solution, but is in fact the problem, their life would have been different. If they learnt that focusing on the present moment is a much healthier option, they would not only be amongst us but also leading fulfilling lives despite the events of their past.
As I have mentioned before, I have done certain things in the past that I am not proud of. But I know that obsessing about those things will not change the events that have already happened. In fact it will only make me feel more guilty and depressed and lead to a non productive outcome. I realized that the past cannot be changed and even the future is not under my control totally. The only thing that is under my control are my actions in the present moment.
One of the best ways that I have learned to not dwell in the past is through mindfulness meditation. I set aside short periods of time every week where I sit calmly and just focus on my breathing. My mind wanders in the past and the future or even imaginary things, but when I become conscious of it happening, I bring my attention back to the present moment and focus on my breath.
The benefits have been tremendous even by doing this meditation for short periods. I have become much more adept at keeping my focus on day to day life instead of feeling guilty about things that cannot be changed or daydreaming about the future.
4) If doing things to correct your mistakes makes you feel less guilt then do them. But don’t obsess over trying to be perfect, only aim to do your best.
When you do things you regret, it is natural to want to correct them. Even though the fact is that you cannot change the past, certain things can be done to ensure the same mistakes are not repeated. You may also want to do things that may offer you a sense of relief so that your heart starts believing that at least the positive things you do outweigh the negative things you did.
That is perfectly fine. It never hurts to do good. But even then you have to realize that changing habits takes time and that no one is perfect. There are possibilities that you may make the occasional slip here and there are and move towards the same old negative habits or actions. That is fine because you are human! If you try to be perfect all the time, you set yourself up for failure, because that setback will shock you so much that you may just slide back into the pit of guilt.
I made the mistake of not behaving well with my parents as a teenager so I try to make up for it now by showing as much love I can for them.
I made the mistake of throwing away money so now I actively take steps to manage money better and have become much wiser with my finances.
I made the mistake of being a bit of a bully with some kids when I was younger. I made them feel bad about themselves so now I try to make up for it by helping others succeed in their life and boosting their confidence.
But am I perfect? Of course not. There are times when I get upset with my parents, there are times when I make silly financial decisions and there are times when I get into arguments with people, although all of these times are very rare.
But if I tried to be perfect, I would just give up the first time I had these setbacks. I would probably just resign to the fact that my habits would not change and spiral again into guilt. Instead, I realized that the very fact that I experienced a setback meant that I had made some amazing progress before and if I was trying to climb a mountain, slipping down a little from time to time was expected.
So instead of crying over the fact that some of my old habits resurfaced, I got back up and resolved to do the best I can again, without trying to be perfect. As a result, I made progress yet again and lead a happy, fulfilling life today.
I hope the tips given in this piece have resonated with you and if they have it would be a wise idea to implement them as well, because nothing can replace practically applying the information you receive. I have applied these tips myself and my progress is a testament to the fact that you can live a happy life and overcome guilt despite the mistakes you may have made intentionally or unintentionally.
I do understand that everyone’s situation is different and sometimes it maybe hard to get rid of guilt completely. That is okay, eliminating guilt totally is not the goal, the goal is to live productively, while not letting guilt control your life. No matter what your situation, applying these four strategies I have mentioned will help you tremendously in achieving the same!