Healthy Ways to Deal With Guilt

Ask anyone to define “guilt,” and they hem and haw. It’s a feeling that’s kind of hard to describe. A

Ask anyone to define “guilt,” and they hem and haw. It’s a feeling that’s kind of hard to describe. A feeling that I should have done something, should be doing something, should not have done something.

Actually, “guilt” comes from an Old English word that meant “delinquency.” Today Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines it as “feelings of culpability, especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy; self-reproach.” It’s a revealing definition — nowhere does it say that guilt is related to things you actually did wrong.

Sometimes you should feel guilty (if you’ve done something morally wrong, committed a crime, or intentionally hurt someone). But if you’re like most of us, you walk around feeling guilty because of all the “shoulds” that come into your life — that is, the things you didn’t do. That’s not only bad for your mental and physical health, but completely unfair to you. Here’s
how to shed some of that guilt:

1. Above all else, learn to forgive yourself. If feelings of guilt haunt you, take some concrete steps to end this self-inflicted punishment. First, list the things you feel guilty about. It could be something stupid you said recently, an act of cruelty you did to a sibling in your childhood, or a detrimental personal habit that has hurt your relationship with a loved one. Then ask, How can I forgive myself and let it go? Perhaps it’s prayer, writing a letter, having a talk, making a charitable donation, or committing to a personal change. Often it’s merely having the courage to say, “I’m sorry.” Then do what it takes so you can honestly, finally forgive yourself. You’ll be amazed at the lightness and freedom doing this can bring.

2. Set a no-guilt-allowed rule whenever you go on vacation or do something just for yourself. Often women do not experience vacations, breaks, and other relaxing activities as stress-relieving because they feel guilty that they are not doing more productive things, says Larina Kase, Ph.D., a psychologist at the Center for Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania. Tell yourself that you are taking a break and doing it for a reason (improved health, decreased stress, etc.) so there is no reason to feel guilty. As soon as you hear yourself say, “I should be…” remind yourself why you are choosing not to do that. Make sure anyone you’re traveling with knows about the no-guilt rule too.

3. Take five minutes in the morning to feel guilty. Then either do what you’re feeling guilty about (e.g., call your mother) or forgive yourself for what you did that you shouldn’t have done, knowing that you’ve learned your lesson and won’t do it again, says Rebecca Fuller Ward, a therapist in Little Rock, Arkansas, and the author of How to Stay Married Without Going Crazy.

4. Correct a mistake rather than feeling guilty about it. For instance, if you’re feeling guilty because you went shopping on Saturday instead of visiting your mother in the nursing home, take time out of your schedule midweek for a visit. Many times, the things we feel guilty about are relatively easy to make right.

5. Ask yourself what your guilt is really about. If you’re guilty about not serving on the church landscaping committee, is it because you really don’t have the time, or because you don’t like the other women? Maybe you want to do more for the church, but landscaping just isn’t it. Take some time and really examine the motivation behind your guilt, rather than just wallowing in it.

6. Recognize that a feeling of guilt doesn’t always mean that what you did was wrong. For instance, if you’re feeling guilty because you decided it was more important to relax with a book than to have coffee with your always-in-a-crisis friend, that means you’re learning to set limits and take time for yourself. In cases like this, have the confidence to admit that you made the right choice.

7. Commit to saying no at least once a day — no guilt allowed.

8. Start a guilt journal. Every time you feel guilty about something, write it down in your journal. Write the time, the day, what you feel guilty about. Go back and reread this journal every couple of weeks to find the trends in your guilt. This will provide clues to the source of your guilt that will enable you to better deal with its underlying roots.

9. Stop asking, “What if?” Instead, start asking, “What now?” Put another way, stop thinking about things you’ve already done and can’t change, and instead focus on the present — what you can do today to make your life and the world around you better.

10. Recall all the healthful benefits of some of the most guilt-inducing foods. For instance, dark chocolate is full of heart-healthy antioxidants. Red wine has fabulous benefits for your heart, cholesterol, and other health markers. A handful of mixed nuts imparts a healthy dose of monounsaturated fat and vitamin E. A box of popcorn gives you a good dose of fiber. Just remember: moderation in all things!

11. Talk to a relative or friend who recalls the incident about which you’re feeling guilty. Often our own memories are not the most accurate; your feelings of guilt may be coming from something that really didn’t happen the way you remember it.

12. Don’t get caught up in blaming. For some reason, many people feel compelled to assign blame (often to themselves) for anything that goes wrong, big or small. But that’s a bad approach to this complex world of ours. Instead, take a more forgiving approach to the world and recognize that sometimes things just happen on their own momentum, as a result of a cascade of events that cannot be blamed on any one person.

13. List 10 things you like about yourself. Most of us are highly critical of ourselves, without acknowledging the good, the funny, the right choices, the successes. Guilt becomes less of an issue when we are happy and secure in who we are. Keep this list in your purse, in your pocket, or on your computer at work. Look at it whenever you’re feeling guilty about what you should or should not have done.

14. Recognize that you can only do your best. Nothing more. So maybe you weren’t the kind of mother who got down on the floor to play with her kids, but you were the kind of mother who took her kids on outings to museums and parks. Maybe you aren’t the kind of person to surprise your spouse with romantic gestures and gifts, but you do provide a perpetually open ear, helping hand, and unconditional support.

15. Write a check to an aid agency. That’s doing something concrete with your guilt. If you’re feeling guilty about eating that chocolate cake last night, go for a long walk today. If you feel guilty about the long hours you’ve been spending at work, call in sick tomorrow and spend the day with your kids and/or partner doing what they want.

16. Make a sign that proclaims “I deserve this” and hang it above your desk. The next time you feel guilty about your success, or begin to feel like you’re a fake and don’t deserve the success you’ve achieved, look at the sign and repeat the mantra 15 times.

17. Focus on the world around you. There’s no use feeling guilty for all the horrors of the world. You are just one person with a limited reach. Ask a clergy member or any anthropologist or social scientist and they’ll all say our job as humans is to do our best, and nothing more.

18. Determine your priorities, write them down, and then post the list on your refrigerator and in your office. Next time you start feeling guilty about something you didn’t do, check the list. If it’s not in the top three priorities, you’re off the hook.

19. Accept some selfishness. It really is okay to look out for yourself.

20. Don’t leave guilt unresolved, particularly if it relates to an older relative such as a parent. Address the issues that matter to you so you’re not left with regrets you can’t address.

21. Ask yourself, “Would I want someone else to feel guilty about what’s eating away at me?” “Would I forgive someone else for doing/not doing what I did/didn’t do?” If the answer to either of these is yes, then (to paraphrase the golden rule) do unto yourself as you would have yourself do unto others!

22. Politely decline other people’s guilt. Mothers have an amazing capacity for making children feel guilty — even when their child is 60 years old. Some spouses, bosses, children, and religious leaders are also masters at making others feel bad about what they have (or haven’t) done or said. Know what? They have no right to do that, and you have no obligation to listen. Only you are accountable for your actions. Assuming you haven’t broken a law or a solemn promise, only you have the right to judge whether you did something wrong. A loved one can certainly tell you if you’ve done something to hurt him. But he doesn’t have the right to tell you what your reaction ought to be.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest