5 Tips to Stop Feeling Guilty

Do you ever wish that you just didn’t care as much? I’m not talking about suddenly becoming mean or cynical, but wouldn’t it be nice to just not feel so much guilt? If you’re like me, then the answer is most definitely YES!

Guilt is an emotional warning that typically arises when we believe we’ve done, or are about to do, something that can result in harm to ourselves or another person (emotionally, physically, materially or otherwise). It prompts us to re-examine our behavior so that we don’t end up making the same mistake twice. A short-term benefit of guilt is that it helps us maintain our relationships and keep in good standing with our families and communities.

But what happens when our guilt has nothing whatsoever to do with “reality” or with anything wrong, shameful or stupid that we have done? According to researcher Peter Breggin, guilt is a negative legacy from biological evolution and childhood. Before we were cognitively able to recall or understand what was happening to us we were having guilt triggers embedded.

According to recent studies, women actually feel more guilt than men.  A study in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior showed that women tend to feel about 30% to 40% more guilty and distressed than men when they have to take work-related calls or emails at home. This study focused only on work boundaries, so it’s not difficult to imagine how much more guilt women may have in other areas of our lives.

According to researcher, Itziar Etxebarria, who published a study in the Spanish Journal of Psychology, women feel more guilt because they are socially conditioned to do so, rather than there being a physiological or evolutionary reason for the difference. "This is caused by certain educational and social practices, which demand more of females, and which are sometimes still in use despite belief to the contrary," says Etxebarria.

And then there is another form of unwarranted guilt, I’ll call it the “gift guilt”. This is the remorse which arises when people do us a favor and, instead of feeling gratitude, we respond with guilt, due to failing to meet an imaginary obligation we had set for ourselves.  According to researcher Phil Watkins, “people do feel indebted and grateful at the same time,” he says and “if you feel too indebted, then it’s hard to feel grateful.”

In another study, from George Mason University, it was found that men are less likely to feel and express gratitude than women, and also that men are more likely to view a gift as a burden or obligation (maybe this is one reason why it’s hard for men to ask for help).

With all of this unwarranted guilt flying around, it’s no wonder that our emotional energy can seem so easily spent!

Here are a few tips that can help with any type of guilt (warranted or not):

1. Recognize the type of guilt and its purpose (if any)

If we feel guilty for saying something offensive to another person (or hurting them in some other way), that’s a warning sign with a purpose, telling you to change your behavior. You can still choose to ignore your guilt, but do so at your own risk. This is a “healthy” type of guilt because it serves the purpose of trying to help correct our behavior to honor our values and relationships.

According to Mark R. Leary, Ph.D. a professor of psychology at Yale University, another type of guilt arises based on standards internalized during childhood. So, before you accept guilt for something you did, take a minute to ask yourself, “Am I consciously living by my own expectations?”

For example, perhaps your mother vacuums and dusts the house twice a week. You may not feel that this is the best use of your time and energy, so you choose not to. Yet, you feel guilty about it nontheless. In cases like this it’s important to recognize and differentiate between your mother’s priorities and yours. 

If you’re feeling guilty and there’s nothing to feel guilty about, this is “unhealthy” guilt, because it serves no rational purpose. Recognizing unhealthy guilt is the first step to letting it go.

2. Get it Out

That joke you told at the office party may sound horrible when you replay it over and over in your head. But, if you tell a friend about your regret, it may not seem so bad. “Secrecy is the intensifier of guilt,” says Edward Hallowell, M.D. Allowing a fresh perspective and discovering that your friend doesn’t think your joke is that shocking lets the guilt drift away.

Even if your friend is shocked, by discussing the issue openly, “you accept the fact that you’re not perfect, that you’ve done things that aren’t pretty,” says Hallowell. But that doesn’t mean you should continue to punish yourself.

This holds true even for the unhealthy guilt. Connecting with others and letting them know about your guilty feelings will allow another perspective to shine through and highlight that the guilt is not warranted. Even if you don’t let it go right away, there will be a shift and, over time, it’ll lessen.

3. Make Amends

If you have some healthy guilt, do something about it! Say you’re sorry and try to remedy the situation. Most people will appreciate the gesture because it shows that you recognize what you did, and that you care about their feelings and value the relationship. Then learn from it, meaning: don’t do it again. Apologizing multiple times for the same type of infraction eventually becomes to come across as disingenuous.

If you have unhealthy guilt troubling you, start by recognizing that it’s only making you feel bad. Try to make amends to yourself. Forgive yourself and know that this guilt is only hurting you and others by consuming energy that could be put to better use.

4. No One is Perfect

Making mistakes is part of being human. Everyone is occasionally late, everyone says things that they regret. It may not make it OK, but accepting your humanity can help you move on from the way you feel about whatever you may have done (that you wish you hadn’t). So, the next time you do something regrettable, take action and skip the days, weeks or months of beating yourself up because you should’ve been perfect. You’re not, and neither am I. That’s just life.

5. Sweat it Out

“Working out is like hitting the reset button on your brain,” says Hallowell. “It’s hard to exercise and feel guilty at the same time.” So, the next time you’re in a funk, get out for a run, bike or have a personal dance party. It may not fix the originating issue, but it’ll get your mind in the solution mode instead of the self-loathing mode.

Do you have some unwarranted guilt that you need help shaking off? If so, I’m here for you