Has a current or past situation left you feeling guilty? We often create stories about our lives and actions that will support our feelings of guilt. One way we do that is called ‘absence guilt’. Let me give you an example as a therapist. Imagine you are in a relationship and you decide to call it a day. A few months later you hear your ex is going out with someone who treats them very badly. You’d naturally feel a bit guilty, right?
Of course, this is ridiculous. For a start, you are not anyone’s saviour, nor can you take responsibility for someone else’s choices and decisions. It also assumes that you (who didn’t want to go out with this person anymore) are a better option for your ex than their current partner. But maybe your ex needed a “wake-up call” to realise that he or she is entitled to more than either of you offered?! No one wants to be in a relationship with someone who’s there only because they feel sorry for them!
Our brains are very good at spinning stories when guilt comes calling. We can beat ourselves up and look for evidence that anything is our fault if we look hard enough. Instead, here’s what you should be doing if you are feeling guilty.
Take Another Look At The Situation
If you are feeling guilty then it’s time to stop being a martyr. Instead, ask yourself a few questions. In the situation above you might ask yourself the following:
- Did your partner have a choice about who he/she went out with after you?
- Do you think they would have listened to your opinion on their choice had you given it?
- Do you think they might have been able – on their own – to make the decision to stop going out with that person before the situation became toxic?
So, at what point are they accountable for their own choices, regardless of the circumstances? Sometimes we have to let people choose for themselves and make their own decisions while we make ours. We can’t be responsible for everyone. We can only be good citizens as we try to make our way through life.
Considering all of the above, was their unhappiness really your fault?
Guilt: Don’t Rewrite History
Quite often, someone else’s version of events may look and sound very different from our own. People remember different things based on their beliefs, values and what they considered important about the event. No two witness statements of a crime are ever the same, because we each see and experience something slightly different. As a result, sometimes people rewrite history at the expense of someone else to make themselves feel better.
I have a friend who climbed Kilimanjaro with two friends. Although they all got to the top and raised a lot of money for charity, the trip itself was a nightmare. The two friends ended up hating each other, with my friend caught in the middle. The friendships never recovered. Months later, my friend was listening as one of the climbers was telling someone what happened on the mountain. My friend was genuinely taken aback as she listened to another version of events, and heard how radically different it was to her own memory of what happened.
If you don’t remember something it might be because it never actually happened! Research has proved we are all susceptible to ‘false memories’, whereby we can be influenced by or open to suggestions based on things that didn’t happen.
Feeling Guilty? It’s Never Too Late To Apologise
If something is still upsetting or worrying you, regardless of how long ago it was, and you feel you want to sort it out, take the bull by the horns. Apologise. The other person can either accept your apology or not and, to be honest, both outcomes are fine. Your effort to say you’re sorry and your willingness to accept responsibility for your part in the situation will help to wash away any residual guilt. What the other person decides to do with your apology is up to them and is their ‘stuff’ not yours.
Remember, it is the past that connects you to guilt, not guilt that connects you to your past. No amount of torturing yourself is going to change what happened. If the relationship your behaviour affected is important to you, then do whatever you can to make amends. Feeling guilty is like carrying a millstone around your neck. It’s not the answer.
Forgive yourself. You screwed up, welcome to the human race! Let it go. For more guidance on life, consider reading my latest book, Your Life Your Way.