It can be hard to think of anything else as guilt is an emotion which can have such a crippling effect. But did you know guilt can actually be healthy? It’s just that few of us have the coping techniques to deal with it.
There are few emotions which stir us as deeply as guilt. When you feel you are in the wrong, that you can’t turn back time and make something right, often coupled with emotional outpourings. Perhaps you’re feeling guilt over the death of a parent, or not being “perfect enough” for your own kids. (By the way; guilt is an unfortunate symptom of grief and there’s no such thing as a perfect parent so what your mind is telling you is not real).
But you don’t have to walk around feeling ‘not good enough’ and absolutely can turn how awful you feel into a positive thing.
Recognise that a little guilt is healthy – it’s how we learn
Although it is an unpleasant feeling, ‘appropriate’ guilt helps us to regulate our social behaviour. “Feeling guilty for a justifiable reason is a sign that your conscience and cognitive abilities are working properly to stop you repeating or making mistakes,” explains leading psychologist Dr Mark Winwood, Director of Psychological Services for AXA PPP healthcare.
And in some situations we can harness guilt for our own good; for example if we decide to stop smoking because we feel guilty about the habit harming our family.
“The perpetual feeling of guilt is known as ‘guilt-proneness’,” explains Dr Winwood. “People who experience guilt-proneness are believed to have a strong connection with their own, and others’, emotions. They are most often more psychologically adjusted and have good relationship skills.”
Understand what is outside of your control – feeling guilty about something you have no control over is unhelpful
If you have a ‘worrier’ personality type then you are likely to experience misplaced feelings of guilt. When we feel guilty about things we couldn’t change or were not our fault it’s hard to learn lessons and take the positive life lessons from the situation.
“It’s important to recognise how much was within your power and control, to gain perspective,” confirms Dr Winwood. “If you feel that your guilt is justified then you can take a proactive response,’ says Dr Winwood.
“There is no magical solution to guilty feelings, and if they are justified then it is much healthier not to try and get rid of them, rather to accept them and use them to behave more positively in the future.”
If you are finding it hard to look at the situation objectively then speaking to a friend or writing a list can help identify just how much you could have changed your actions which are leading to the guilt.
Take positive action – apologise or make amends if you can
“Facing up to your mistakes is much more effective than denial,” explains Dr Winwood. “Don’t beat yourself up – everyone makes mistakes and ‘perfection’ is largely subjective.”
So rather than laying awake for hours in bed going over how you shouldn’t been so short with your friend, accept what you did was wrong and resolve to apologise first thing and meet up soon. Then get some sleep!
When we take steps to put something right our positive thinking pushes back those guilty feelings. And putting things right technically eliminates the problem all together!
Practice mindfulness – take some time out and focus on the positives
While there’s no doubt there is seemingly more to worry about today than ever before, if you find yourself constantly feeling guilty you need to take positive action.
“Near-constant irrational guilt has been linked to mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression,” says Dr Winwood.
“Unchecked guilt can also result in lack of concentration and productivity, increased stress and lack of sleep.”
Meditation can help banish guilt
Practicing mindfulness is a proactive step that you can take in order to gain some calm and put your guilt into perspective.
There are a number of apps you can download which take you through mindfulness exercises which can be done anywhere at any time.
Mindful meditation focuses on breathing as way of paying attention to the moment, as this calms the mind and body. Find a quiet place, practice deep breathing, notice thoughts and feelings as they appear, allowing them to pass without judgement, before focusing once again on breathing.
The benefit of relaxing with a good book
If you find that doesn’t fit your personality active meditation – such as reading a book, popping out for fresh air, taking some exercise – might help.
Focusing on an activity which makes us forget everything else can free you from the obsessive thoughts of guilt. Then it’s possible to address how best to rectify the situation.
So don’t let guilt consume you. Learn, resolve and move on to a happier space.