Q. I feel guilty nearly every day for one reason or another. If I have to cancel a doctor’s appointment, even for a legitimate reason, I feel guilty. I feel guilty about mistakes or poor decisions I made in the past. I’m always apologizing to people because I think I’ve said something that hurt or offended them. When I try to explain, they don’t even remember the incident. Sometimes I avoid contact with people because I don’t want to feel guilty again. But then I feel guilty for avoiding my friends. How I can I get over feeling guilty?
A. There are two types of guilt, healthy guilt and unhealthy guilt. Healthy guilt occurs when we make a hurtful mistake, commit a deliberate misdeed, or neglect a responsibility. Healthy guilt occurs when we realize a flaw in our character which needs to be corrected.
Unhealthy guilt makes us feel guilty no matter what we do. It is pervasive, irrational and self-punishing. It makes us feel worthless. Unhealthy guilt is not productive, we don’t learn from it. We simply wallow in it and feel defective.
Healthy guilt enables us to see our mistakes or flaws and use this knowledge to learn about ourselves. The process of accepting responsibility, making amends and determining to change our behavior is a growth process that increases our self-respect.
Often those who feel guilty a lot will blame others for “making them feel guilty.” It’s good you realize that your guilt is your problem, not something someone else does to you. Although we are affected by the things others say, our emotions have to do with our own unique makeup and perception of our world. We must own our feelings before we can begin to overcome them.
Here are some steps for getting rid of unhealthy guilt:
1. Keep a journal about your guilt feelings. Note each time you feel guilty, what triggered it, how you responded to it (tears, anger, depression ) and your thoughts about why you felt guilty.
2. Look for patterns in your guilt. Perhaps you can group the types of guilt you have such as guilt about the past, guilt about seeming failures, guilt about saying the “wrong” thing.
3. Ask your self, did I really do anything wrong? If the answer is yes then you are experiencing healthy guilt. You will need to face the issue and decide to change. For example, if you are habitually late and this is one of the things you feel guilty about, the solution is to change your ways.
4. Ask yourself, did I do something that isn’t consistent with my goals for myself? If the answer is yes this is either healthy guilt or you have set unrealistic goals. For example, you feel guilt about eating a piece of pie because you want to lose weight. If you’re anorexic or your ideal is Twiggy, your goal is unrealistic and unhealthy. If you do need to lose weight your goal is OK and your guilt is healthy. In this case, use your guilt to help you get back on your plan rather than using it to beat up on yourself.
If you did nothing wrong, yet feel guilty, talk back to the relentless critic in your head. Defend yourself against the unfair, untrue accusations made against you. Then tell your inner critic to scram.
To get rid of healthy guilt confess your failures and sins to God and ask for forgiveness.
“If we confess our sins he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9