Guilt and shame can be a special brand of hellish torment, especially when it runs rampant and we feel horrible for having the audacity to even think, feel, or have any needs. How dare you not immediately reply to that text message! How dare you tell your friends you can’t make it out this weekend! How could you even think to tell your father you didn’t like that movie?! How dare you block that troll! Shame, shame, shame.
Just reading that felt yuck, right? Guilt and shame are ideally supposed to be helpful feelings. Guilt is the feeling that we have done a bad thing. Shame is the feeling that we have been a bad person. You can imagine how these feelings grow out of empathy: “I care about other people and feel bad when I hurt them.” That helps us to behave compassionately toward others.
The problem? When we feel like almost anything we do is bad or we feel like we are bad person no matter who we have become, we can struggle with self-esteem, self-acceptance, anxiety, panic, depression, feelings of emptiness, anger, resentment, rage, tension, and fear.
Tips For Managing Guilt
Sometimes we are having a hard time with guilt or shame because we aren’t really sure what is and what is not our fault. Sometimes we struggle with guilt because someone is guilt-tripping us. Other times we don’t know how to take a healthy perspective toward our imperfections when we make mistakes. No matter the reason for your guilt, there are strategies that can help.
You are Allowed to Have Feelings and Needs
You are a human being. You having emotions and needs doesn’t make you a failure or selfish or a bad person, it makes you human. Our brains are literally designed to have emotions and needs. The important part is that we are communicating them appropriately. Make sure you are communicating your emotions and needs in a healthy manner like, “when you talk to me like that, I feel hurt and upset. I would like you to use a more compassionate and respectful tone with me.”
Learn What is Healthy
If you learn what healthy and appropriate communication and boundaries actually are and what they actually look like, you will be much less inclined to feel guilty that maybe what you did was bad. You get a clear idea of what is expected of you in social settings and you know what is considered appropriate communication then there’s no need to ruminate about the possibility that you’re a horrible terrible monster.
Remind yourself of your rights to set boundaries and be your own person. You have the right to say no. You have the right to make decisions for yourself and govern your own person, like pick out your clothes, choose your major, choose your career, decide who to date, whether or not you want to marry, have children, where you want to live and so on.
You are Responsible to, Not for, Other People
You are responsible for treating other people with respect, compassion, and dignity. You are responsible for communicating your feelings and needs, even the most angry, difficult emotions, in a safe and appropriate manner to those around you. This means not calling anyone names, not telling someone they “always” do this bad thing, not making accusations about their character or intentions, and so on.
What this doesn’t mean? This doesn’t mean you can’t say “no.” This doesn’t mean you have to do and say whatever will make the person happy. I can treat you with respect and kindness and you still might be upset with me. You can very politely tell someone that no, they cannot take your dog and keep it, but they might still be angry with you for declining. That’s not your problem. You don’t need to give away your puppers just because someone really wants you to.
You are responsible for being appropriate and respectful to others, you are not responsible for whatever feelings they have or how they do or do not cope with you or your own choices about your own life.
Communicate & Ask for Reassurance
Sometimes we are tormenting ourselves with fears about what the other person feels or thinks about us. We have so much anxiety about how we might have impacted someone or ruined our relationship with someone or if they don’t like us because of something we feel guilty about.
One great tip? If your guilt relates to a particular person, try talking to them about how you are feeling and share your worries. Tell them how you are feeling and if there are any worries related to your guilt, ask them for reassurance. “I’m feeling guilty because I wasn’t able to help you with your project and I’m worried you’re pissed at me.” Tell them how you are feeling, including guilt, anxiety, and other emotions, and ask them for reassurance or ask them to share how they really feel about your behavior. If they actually are unhappy with you, then you have an opportunity to make things better and assuage your guilt that way!
Talk to a supportive person about how you’re feeling. Be sure to tell them if you want advice, suggestions, or just need to vent about how you’re feeling so they can best know how to support you. Talking about our feelings and getting someone to empathize or listen can be really soothing and you might be surprised how much this can help reduce guilt.
You can also write about how you’re feeling. Journal, write poems or creative pieces. Putting your feelings into words can be a great way to get a handle on your emotions and start to feel like they’re more manageable and make a bit more sense.
Practice Compassion Toward Yourself
A lot of the times we are the #1 person feeding the guilt monster. We berate ourselves, we put ourselves down for our mistakes. We focus intensely on our imperfections and ignore the good things about what we did and who we are. A situation might provoke some feelings of guilt in you, but it becomes 100x more difficult to manage when you’re turning a little campfire into a raging forest fire with how you’re magnifying, catastrophizing, and distorting the already difficult situation.
Instead of putting ourselves down and kicking ourselves, making us feel even worse, we can learn to think more adaptively about our mistakes. We can learn to think more realistically (“I did my best, it didn’t go the way I wanted and I have room to grow. I can learn from this and do better next time.”) and compassionately (“I’m really frustrated that I made that mistake, but everyone makes mistakes, I can’t be perfect all the time, and it was an easy mistake that a lot of people might have made. I’ll learn from this and be better prepared in the future.”). The Crap-O-Vision PDF is a great tool for learning to manage cognitive distortions that can exponentially increase guilt.
Another great way of getting in touch with self-compassion is to review the situation you’re feeling guilty about- if there was a person or a little kid that you loved very much in the same situation as you, would you tell them that they should be beating themselves up about this? Would you tell them that, yes, they should feel like the worst person on the planet? No. What would you say to them? Maybe something like, “Of course you feel bad about this situation. I think a lot of people would. But just because something didn’t work out the way you want or just because someone is upset with you doesn’t mean you actually ARE a terrible person. You are a good person doing your very best, and you have the right to make mistakes and learn from them, you have the right to be imperfect and have growth opportunities. You have the right to feel emotions and have needs and set boundaries and say ‘No.’”
The Power of Apologies
If you have made a mistake or hurt someone, apologize. Take responsibility without justifications or explanations, apologize, and explain what you plan to do in the future to make things better or avoid repeating the mistake. A great apology can be the first step in feeling like you’re making things better. This helps counteract feeling like you’re bad or did a bad thing because you’re making it better by doing a good thing by taking responsibility!
The #1 Guilt Management Tip
If you remember nothing else from this article, remember this:
You are responsible to, not for, other people.
You need to act right, keep your nose clean, be respectful and appropriate, but their feelings, happiness, wellbeing, life choices, problems, fate is ultimately not something you are responsible FOR. Unless they’re your child or kitty or puppy or hamster or houseplant or something you are literally responsible for, then no – you stay off their lawn, mind how you communicate, and let people manage their own emotions and thoughts and behaviors.