Guilt is a recurring theme in our most enduring works of literature, philosophy, religion, and therapy—arguably the youngest of these. While plenty of time and energy has been devoted to understanding and evaluating guilt, many of us are still unfamiliar with the roots of guilt—what causes it, what precedes it, and what it is actually trying to tell us.
How, then, are we supposed to manage or deal with feelings of guilt and forgive ourselves for our mistakes?
Precisely defining guilt can be difficult, as different institutions and sources define it in different ways. Some, for instance, almost seem to venerate guilt and consider it an important part of maintaining your adherence to moral standards. Others see it as an indication that you have unhealed wounds or unmet expectations and consider it a mental health guide more than a morality tool. For our purposes here, we will attend to guilt as it is defined by the profession and study of psychology.
Psychology identifies guilt as an emotion indicating the presence of having done something wrong and needing to remedy that perceived wrong. Guilt can come when we believe we have done something wrong entirely on our own, or can develop in response to how others see us (especially people close to us or authority over us, or people we love).
Although psychology’s definition does not carry with it the same moral judgment many philosophical and religious institutions do, even a psychological definition identifies guilt as an indication of wrongdoing or considered wrongdoing. As such, guilt can be an immensely valuable tool to keep yourself in alignment with your own value system.
Guilt is often regarded negatively, but it actually plays an important role in people’s day-to-day lives. Guilt can help people identify where they have strayed from their values, or can reveal where someone may require stronger boundaries.
If guilt is borne from your own belief that you have made a misstep, the feeling can jump-start a reaction to take proactive steps to right the wrong. If, for instance, you believe that you’ve hurt the feelings of someone who means a great deal to you, guilt might encourage you to reach out to that person and apologize for your behavior. In this case guilt is a valuable emotion, because it helps you right a wrong and helps you repair a damaged relationship.
If guilt is borne from another person’s belief that you have made a mistake, it can still be useful, because it can help you develop boundaries between yourself and that person, or it can help you identify how you feel about yourself or the relationship. If a parent, for instance, uses strong language to decry your decision to adopt a puppy in the midst of your own personal financial crisis, you can use that emotion to determine how you feel. Do you agree with the suggestion that you have managed your money poorly? Do you feel as though your finances are being inappropriately meddled with by your parent? In either case, guilt can help you take steps to establish boundaries around your finances or can help you evaluate how you feel about your own behavior.
There are different types of guilt, and understanding these types of guilt can help you get to the bottom of how to best address the guilt that you feel. The two types of guilt are legitimate (or actual) guilt and perceived guilt. Actual guilt involves the repercussions of something you have actually done, while perceived guilt involves the potential repercussions of something you perceive. Actual guilt comes from a tangible, measurable mistake, while perceived guilt is usually derived from a suspicion or a sensation that you have made a mistake, even if you are not certain what that mistake is.
Actual guilt might occur after you take the last piece of pizza even though your niece asked for it. It might occur in response to ignoring an important work project, thus forcing a coworker to pick up the slack for you. In actual guilt, there is usually a clear course of action you can take to right the wrong.
Perceived guilt is usually more difficult to rectify than actual guilt, because the exact source of it can be difficult to nail down. Perceived guilt most often occurs in conjunction with relationships. A common example involving perceived guilt might be feeling as though you’ve hurt a friend’s feelings, when communication suddenly dwindles, and feeling as though you should rectify the issue, without quite knowing what you might have done to hurt that friend. Perceived guilt is no less powerful than actual guilt, but can be more difficult to soothe.
Guilt often precedes taking action that encourages forgiveness between parties but it can be harder to forgive ourselves for making mistakes. People may even see self-forgiveness as a sort of betrayal to the guilt that they feel, and “punish” themselves by keeping a strong hold on the guilt that they felt. This type of punishment has been linked to higher levels of stress and anxiety, and can even lead to decreases in self-esteem.
Taking steps to alleviate guilt is important, but learning self-forgiveness is a key component of tackling guilt and moving forward after making a mistake.
So how do you practice self-forgiveness? There are a few steps that usually precede self-forgiveness. These include:
Forgiving yourself is a process, rather than a single decision. It can be like a muscle, and grow stronger the more you use the practice. Living in guilt is not healthy, but neither is simply moving on from mistakes without self-reflection and change. Self-forgiveness can help create a healthy technique for moving on after making a mistake, while eliminating the weight of guilt. The process sounds simple enough, but learning a new skill takes time and there is a learning curve. Remember to exercise patience and self-compassion as you learn how to cope with guilt and forgive yourself.
Self-forgiveness can be difficult to practice, especially if it is not a practice you are familiar with, or a practice that you have had modeled for you. It can also feel unimportant to some, who believe that penance is the only way forward after making a mistake. Self-forgiveness may not come easily, but it is an important part of maintaining your mental health and self-esteem. If you find that you are consistently unable to forgive yourself after making a mistake, despite trying, consider reaching out to mental health professionals who can teach you how to effectively cope with the aftermath of making a mistake and work through guilt and self-forgiveness.
Learning how to turn around old habits, including living in guilt, can take time. If you have always held onto guilt as a form of penance or a means of showing remorse, going up that habit and learning a new series of coping mechanisms can be extremely difficult, and may initially feel uncomfortable or unpleasant. With time, effort, and the appropriate support, however, you may be able to develop a routine and series of habits that you feel comfortable with going to when you have misstepped.
One of the best ways to develop that routine is to seek the assistance and advice of professionals. BetterHelp offers counseling online that allows you to reach out to qualified mental health professionals from the safety and comfort of your own home. Using BetterHelp, you can tackle any underlying issues that may be at the root of your difficulties with guilt and self-forgiveness, and begin creating a go-to practice to soothe your anxiety and discomfort after making a mistake or stepping outside of your values.