If you are on a guilt trip then you are most likely feeling remorseful because of something you did – or even forgot to do. Guilt trips can be minor or something that has festered away at us for years. Here’s the thing though, guilt isn’t a switch you can flick on or off. It’s a gradual process of accepting you’re not perfect – and that being imperfect is OK.
This week and next week, I’ll share some guidance on accepting that imperfection. But for now, here are my thoughts on how to get over your guilt trip.
Whatever you – or anyone – did or didn’t do, you must accept that human beings will always do the best they can with the resources they have at the time. So, before you go beating yourself up, acknowledge that you were probably trying to do the right thing – even if that effort didn’t turn out the way you wanted it to. Perhaps you just didn’t have the knowledge or skills or insights that would have allowed you to handle the situation more effectively.
If you behaved badly, cut yourself some slack. Realise that although something didn’t work out well, you were probably doing the best you could at the time. Our life is full of paths to our destination, so it’s not surprising that we take the wrong one now and again. The key is to realise it’s the wrong path and to get back on the right one as soon as you can. Choose to let go of any guilt you feel because of your brief ‘detour’. After all, you can’t change the past but you can change what happens going forward.
Hindsight Is A Tool – Not A Weapon
When we are on our guilt trip we can easily replay the whole situation repeatedly in our heads, turning up the volume and emotion with each repeat. We cycle through the past and thus re-experience the shame and regret. If only we could go back, knowing what we know now, we would have done it differently, right?
Instead of using hindsight as a tool to further flagellate yourself, celebrate it. If you know you wouldn’t behave that way now, then you are clearly a different person than the one who behaved badly. Guilt is only possible if the experience you feel guilty about changed you. If it hadn’t, you wouldn’t be feeling the guilt. Perhaps you are older, a little wiser, have more knowledge or information than you did then, or you’ve mellowed a little, become more resilient or expanded your life experience.
Whatever the difference, you are different, so to continue punishing the new you for a mistake made by the old you doesn’t really seem fair, does it? Let it go.
Is Your Guilt False?
False guilt is guilt that doesn’t belong to you. I see this in my coaching work more than you might think. We know if guilt is ours, right? Not always. Often a person can assume someone else’s guilt and carry it as though it were their own.
For example, a parent can feel guilty when their child behaves badly–and this can still happen when your child is an adult because you’re the parent and feel responsible for them. By accepting guilt on their behalf, you are effectively shielding them from the consequences of their own behaviour. But no one grows up until they experience — and appreciate– the consequences of their actions.
It can also happen when the individual in question doesn’t take accountability for what they did, so someone else in their vicinity will carry that guilt on their behalf. If you recognise this, give the guilt back: It’s not yours to own. The other person needs to take responsibility, so they can move forward and continue to develop as an adult. But regardless of whether they do, the guilt is not yours. Return it to its rightful owner. Immediately!
Guilt Is Complex
Remember, guilt is usually about something you have done or said or something you should have done or said but didn’t. We can do and say things in the moment because of other stuff going on in our lives. For example, following a death, illness, stress or because of difficult relationships. This stuff can be the driver that moves us away from who we really are inside and transforms us into something or someone we don’t recognise. In other words, the way we behaved, even if it wasn’t great, doesn’t make us a horrible person. It just means we said something or did something that wasn’t so great at that time.
This isn’t about letting ourselves off the hook for bad behaviour, but it allows us to remember that “I am a good person but I did something stupid”, rather than “I did something stupid so I am a bad person”. This is a very important distinction because it allows us to isolate the incident, rather than allowing it to negatively impact our self-esteem and sense of self. Ask yourself, “If I had another chance, would I have handled things differently?” or “Would I handle it differently in the future?” If the answer is yes, then it shows the problem lies not with you as a person, it was your behaviour or action at the time that you regret.
To Sum Up
Guilt is an emotion, not a personality trait. It’s something we create but that doesn’t mean we can’t reflect on our actions and make peace going forward. Ultimately, beating yourself up about what you did or didn’t do won’t change anything about the situation. But, you can use this time of reflection to consider if you would have handled things in a better way and learn from it.
As a therapist and life coach, I help my clients with a variety of topics including personal development. If you are ruminating over past situations and feel unable to move on, then talking about it could be a useful outlet. I am currently running virtual life coach sessions available internationally, so get in touch if it’s something that would be of benefit to you.
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