How to Overcome Feeling Guilty

By Eric Charles, MA., PhD-c


“Every moment spent in unhappiness is a moment of happiness lost.” ~Leo Buscaglia

1. Recognize where the guilt is coming from
Is there something you did or are still doing to contribute to your feelings of guilt? If so, what steps are you taking to not repeat this behavior? Remember, guilt serves an important purpose in helping recognize when a behavior is bad for us. It is our moral and ethical compass. If we choose to ignore it, we inevitably will be haunted by guilty feelings. If the feelings of guilt are coming from something that you can no longer change, acceptance and adopting the intention to not repeat the guilt provoking behavior is the best approach.

Is there someone in your life who is making you feel guilty? It is important to recognize that certain people find comfort, stability, safety and even pleasure in making others feel guilty. It is not necessarily because they are bad people. Controlling others by using guilt often stems from feelings of anxiety or a fear of abandonment (especially from parent to child). A narcissistic parent will make their child feel guilty in order to feel secure that the child will never leave.

Speaking of narcissists, they tend to view people as objects, similarly to how you might view a piece of furniture. If I can set my water bottle on you like I would a table, then I am happy with you. If I can’t, I might go as far as to disown you. When a person guilts you, they are asking you to tend to their emotional needs. If you are entangled in a relationship with a guilting narcissist and are unable to get away, your best bet is to recognize that it is not your responsibility to be their emotional caretaker. Managing your reactivity, while accepting that others “are the way they are” may give you relief in the midst of your struggle.

2. Determine whether your guilt is “healthy” or “unhealthy”
If your guilt is “healthy,” it will tell you not to repeat a particular behavior, because that behavior is harmful in some way. Healthy guilt will also tell you to take responsibility for something you have done.

If your guilt is “unhealthy,” it will tell you to do something because you have to do it, otherwise you are bad. For example, I have to donate because if I don’t, I am a bad person. Even though this may achieve the goal of helping someone, the motivation is unhealthy and unsustainable. In the words of Phoebe, “The wrong thing done for the right reason is still the wrong thing.” Unhealthy guilt will also tell you that you have done something wrong, even when you haven’t.

3. Accept and don’t dwell
If you did something wrong, it is important to accept that you cannot change the past. If we are not careful, we can get caught up thinking about all of the things we could have done differently. If you stray and entertain these thoughts, you will inevitably spiral. Remember, no matter how good your flashlight is should you venture into a cave, it is still a cave. Caves are dark and often lead to no where. Dwelling on your guilt or the misstep you made will only create more guilt. Accept and acknowledge the misstep. Then, move on.

4. If necessary, make the change quickly
If you are participating in a behavior that is guilt provoking, it is important to make a change quickly. Behaviors rapidly become habits. After a while, you may forget what it feels like not to feel guilty. It is possible for a single guilty feeling to evolve into a person’s entire state of being, without them ever noticing. This is especially common with people who struggle with porn addiction. See my post 24 Hour Media Mistress.

5. Remember, guilt is our moral and ethical compass. We need it. 
Keep in mind, guilt serves a necessary purpose for us emotionally. Without it, we would feel no remorse for deceiving or hurting others. The goal is not to be guilt free. The intention is to understand ourselves, our triggers and how we can purposefully influence our behavior to be less reactive and more empowered people.


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38 responses to How to Overcome Feeling Guilty

  1. madandsad says:

    Thank you for this. Indeed I think my guilt is healthy in telling me I did wrong but I’m really dwelling and it can be unhealthy to do that too long.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Singledust says:

    Step 1 : reminds me of a bully in my past and I wish I had read this long ago to know how to deal with it, thankfully it’s slowly becoming less of a problem for me now. Step 5: is there a fine line here between guilt and a conscience? Since there’s such a thing as guilty conscience? just thinking out loud. Your post is very enlightening. Thanks.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Hi and thanks for the comment. It really is unfortunate how prevalent bullying is in our society. I am glad to hear that time has helped you to heal. In regards to your question, what comes to mind for me is the expression “guilt is the good intentions a person really doesn’t have.” I think that guilt and conscience are two separate things. Guilt often has no action associated with it. It is used to acknowledge the offensive act, but not necessarily to reduce the likelihood of re-occurrence whereas, conscience is often positively associated with action. I hope this helps. I am thinking a part II to this blog may be in order! Wishing you well

      Liked by 4 people

      • Singledust says:

        I never thought of guilt and conscience in such distinct terms.I would love to read a follow up post on this. Your insight is so precious. Best rest of the week to you too.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Michelle, thank you kindly for visiting and for commenting. I think a possible future post will be, “5 ways to empower yourself.” Thank you for the idea! Wishing you well.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Hiya! You are very welcome. I find your posts inspiring, informative and therapeutic. I am very pleased to hear that I have inspired your next post on empowerment. I’ll keep reading your blog. 😊

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Thanks….beautiful article…I was married to a narcissist and experienced first hand the behavior traits of this personality type.
    Now with that behind I can be free to live, laugh, and be happy…
    SSS

    Liked by 3 people

    • I am happy to hear you are free from the toxicity of that personality type. Life is too short to live in such imprisonment. Thank you for stopping by and commenting 🙏🏽

      Liked by 2 people

  4. anxiousvee says:

    I read that book The Secret a few years ago and it took some time to get over the unhealthy guilt I developed from not maintaining that, “positive” state of mind, the book described. Every time I felt down I’d feel guilty because I was attracting negative energy.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Princess says:

    Think deeply before getting into anything to prevent guilt. Fix all that needs to be fixed and then make up your mind on what is best. Eliminate all that needs to be Eliminated and try not to offend anyone. As human, we feel guilty if we have not tried to do the right thing.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. ainsobriety says:

    My mom is a narcissist. When I try to limit contact she gets upset and I feel guilty. I am always the “difficult one”.
    I know that guilt isn’t healthy…
    Sigh

    Liked by 2 people

  7. katmicari says:

    For me, it’s a whole lot of “mommy guilt”, which most moms I know feel too. I know a lot of it is fueled by the media and marketing techniques by corporations, but it’s still super hard to ever feel like “enough”.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I have some “boundary crossers “,that feed on the superiority of their capability,to guilt me into second guessing my instincts, and when an attempt is made to gingerly step away,they use the forcefully verbal version of grabbing you by the hair,etc…

    And yes,it is not only one specific person ,but rather a set of people with the,same genetic predisposition, for guilt manipulation. That’s family for ya.

    I do see a therapist for these reasons, and others.

    Well done, I will hang on to this. Very empowering.

    Terrelyn

    Liked by 2 people

  9. When dealing, well, haha, ok, trying to deal with guilt I found that it is very important to differentiate between guilt and shame. Guilt is about something we did wrong. Shame is about feeling wrong, having less, or not having the right to exist because of being inferior to others. A lot of parents, specifically those who have their own issues with shame, bring up kids by shaming them into wanted behaviour. Shame is, a.o. being transferred by: anger, despising, shaming, disrespecting others or demaning perfection of others. It is all about playing the man, not the ball and misusing power. John Bradshaw really dove into the subject even though my not so very humble opinion is that he did not do the last bit of the healing of shame; he seems to know how it works but I, well, sense, that he does not allow himself the be shamefree. However, ‘Healing the shame that binds you’ is very much worth reading. 🙂
    xx, Feeling

    Liked by 3 people

  10. Margarita says:

    I’m not so sure how necessary guilt is. I gave it up for Lent when I was 18…and never looked back. That was a long, long time ago, Eric! 😉 xoM

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Michael says:

    Insightful…
    I would like to share that one thing many people do not realize is the difference between Shame and Guilt.

    The best and quickest reference I know is that Guilt is about something I’ve done. Where Shame is about who I am.

    To define our own reactions, in deciphering which of these we are reacting from, brings a clarity to the defining choices we make in how we deal with the outcome of our choices.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. princess says:

    Never have a nonchalant attitude towards any action you take. As human, we feel guilty when that action is taken without a serious thought. Life is too short; make yourself happy and try not to hurt anyone in the process.
    Do not feel guilty when your actions says it’s over and your partner says it’s not over until he or she says it’s over. Do not feel guilty if you expose your son because of his addictions.
    Always think before acting

    shalom-princess

    Liked by 2 people

  13. mickaellamoyogo says:

    exactly, but sometimes when i feel guilty about sometimes that might seems wrong. I ignore it because sometimes you just have to do it.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Great words – especially that cover the narcassist 🙂 I have a family member who does just this ro “get a reaction” that has been their blueprint of getting attention, the aggravating bully. I also feel “guilt” for feeling so angry and get that it is displaced – mantra today ” its OK to feel all of my feelings without guilt”

    Liked by 2 people

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