Guilt is a necessary human emotion that we all have to journey through. A lack of guilt (in every situation) may be a sign that an individual is a psychopath. Even though guilt is a completely natural feeling, sometimes we may take it too far (this may happen especially to those who overthink and agonize). Andrea F. Polard Psy.D. says, “Guilt can run amok in our psyche, causing inner tensions, exhaustion, and depression. In extreme cases, guilt can make us afraid to live.” Below are a few ways to releasing that toxic guilt for a better, freer life.
Notice your guilt
You can’t free something if you don’t know you have it. While it is easy to place blame on whoever gave you the guilt, it is much more productive to recognize your own feelings that fester inside you.
Pollard says by simply saying “I am feeling guilty, tense and a bit afraid,” it can help to reduce the heaviness guilt may bring.
Get to the bottom of it
After you recognize your guilt, the next step is to question yourself and find out the key factors that contributed to it (without placing blame). Asking yourself questions (like the ones below) may help you in your process of releasing toxic guilt.
- What happened that triggered my guilt?
- What exactly do I feel guilty about?
- Am I afraid of punishment? If yes, what kind of punishment?
- Where does my guilt come from?
- Could an apology make a positive difference?
- Is my guilt tied to real or imagined events?
- Do I exaggerate?
- Does my guilt stem from present events or from a painful past?
- Is my guilt tied to old pain that I am carrying with me for many years?
- Who would I be without my guilt?
- What purpose does my guilt serve in my life?
Get comfortable with the uncomfortable
No one likes to feel uncomfortable feelings. This is why we have many distractions at our disposal (social media, food, alcohol to name a few). But the feeling that is making us uncomfortable might just be the step that pushes us forward into releasing the guilt. Pollard says, “By learning to tolerate the underlying fears and the original pain, we begin to relax with the discomfort and reopen the gates to self-compassion.”
If you do not feel comfortable or strong enough to face it on your own, there is no shame in calling a healthcare provider or a professional therapist to help work on releasing guilt.
Forgive others. Ask for forgiveness. Forgive yourself. Realize that you are human with flaws and so long as you apologize sincerely and whole-heartedly, most of the time you will be forgiven. On occasion, the other person is hurt and will not forgive. At this point, know that you have flaws, have done everything you could, and let yourself off the hook. Pollard states, “Kindness to self and others often has the power to release the most notorious guilt.”
Recognize you are separate from another individual
This may be hard sometimes for those who are codependent or are parents, but in order to keep yourself sane, you have to separate their guilt from your guilt. Recognize that we all have different paths we must take. As parting phrases, Pollard advises, “As you accept nature as nature is, the guilt of excessive responsibility can finally flow out of you. Let it happen.”