Each of us has had to cope with feelings of guilt at some point. Whether or not you intended to cause anyone harm, you did, and it left you reeling with guilt and remorse. Sometimes, you even feel guilty when you haven’t done anything wrong. You’re stuck, yearning to be rid of that feeling yet unable to shake it. It keeps you up at night and greets you with each sunrise. It can be a steadfast yet unwelcome companion, gnawing at you non-stop.
The feelings of shame and regret associated with guilt are truly awful, but it’s not impossible to shut them down, heal and move on; you just have to be ready to shed your guilty feelings and willing to follow a few safe suggestions for letting go of guilt.
1. Forgive yourself first
In order to move on, you need to stop and forgive yourself. Look at the situation, see what you may have done incorrectly, and say to yourself “I’m sorry, please forgive me, thank you, I love you”. It’s so important to make peace with ourselves before trying to work through our issues with guilt.
Self-forgiveness and self-care help us to move forward without letting guilt control and cripple us.
Forgive yourself for not having handled the situation better, see what you could have done differently, then let yourself off the hook. Forgive anyone who is harping on about the subject while you’re at it. As long as you promise yourself to right any wrongs and not repeat any harmful behavior, you’ll be on the right path to letting go of guilt.
2. Admit that you made a mistake, then move on
Be sure to make a genuine effort to make amends with the person you hurt or offended. If your actions or words caused any pain, it’s important to put your ego aside, be very honest with yourself, admit your error and express sincere interest in making things better. Once you’ve faced the real issue and discussed it calmly with the other person, you’ll be ready to move on and put it in the past. Just be careful not to fake it or make promises you can’t keep.
Know that you cannot change or undo the past, but you can control how you react and conduct yourself in the present. What you need to focus on is not causing any new harm or increasing anyone’s suffering—including your own. The sooner you make amends, the sooner you can get on with the healing process and letting go of guilt. Change your negative behavior, and be careful not to repeat anything that may cause a repeat of this issue.
3. Examine your feelings with compassion
Are you being too hard on yourself? Do you feel like you don’t deserve to be guilt-free? Stop right there and realize that although it’s okay to get stuck in a negative pattern, it can be stopped. It’s not healthy to continue to berate and judge yourself. Would you treat a dear friend or loved one thusly? Probably not, so stop being so harsh and start respecting and loving yourself a little bit more each day. Don’t let the conditioning of outside sources such as family, friends and spouses keep you stuck in a guilty vortex.
Stop worrying about what everyone else thinks—odds are, they’re not thinking as harshly of you as you think. Look at your feelings, see where they originate, breathe into whatever arises, and don’t try to ignore anything. Honest soul searching will help you to achieve clarity so that you may help yourself heal. Try writing down what you feel to clarify your emotions.
4. Use mantras and meditation to heal yourself
A mantra is a statement or phrase that is repeated aloud or mentally. Working with mantras and sitting still with your emotions can greatly reduce your stress, guilt, shame and anxiety. I try to use mantras every day, but I still make mistakes. Be ready to do the daily work needed to prevent yourself from repeating past transgressions or move on from wasting time feeling guilt when you did nothing to deserve self-inflicted punishment.
A helpful mantra that I use is “I release you.” Say it to yourself, say it in your mind to others, and let yourself and others off the hook. Visualizing releasing your guilt may also be helpful. Close your eyes and see yourself smiling, peaceful and calm. Notice how it would feel to shed the excess weight of your feelings of guilt, shame and anxiety. Do you see yourself sleeping soundly and waking up rested, clear-headed and at ease? Use mantras and meditation on a daily basis to letting go of guilt and see how they help.
5. Don’t do it again
Once you’ve examined your feelings and calmed down a bit, work to be better. If you wounded someone you love via your actions, inactions or words, promise you will not do it again. After you’ve forgiven yourself and set in motion some healing and self-love, set the intention to not repeat any behavior that hurt anyone in the first place. If you did no wrong but were laden with guilt, set an intention to not let that happen again, either. Self-inflicted guilt is a waste of your time. Going round and round in circles with guilt but not making any changes is exhausting and unproductive. Once you make amends with anyone you hurt and forgive yourself, be sure to truly commit to not repeating negative behavior.
Guilt can be a useful emotion that tells us that we need to pay attention to something. Be careful not to let it govern your life, and learn how to lighten your burden and do better in the present moment.