Many of us have experienced guilt in our lives. Whether we did something wrong or thought that we did, didn’t do something we imagined we should, didn't do enough to help someone, or did something better than someone else, we can start feeling guilty. (1)
Guilt is an emotion, an internal state that occurs when a person believes that he or she is somehow responsible for compromising universal moral standards or his/her own moral views. Simply, it's the emotion we experience when we believe or realize we've caused harm. Guilt is often related to the concept of remorse. (2)
There is a traditional belief that views guilt as a great motivator and a functional way to get people to act in socially desirable ways out of a sense of obligation.
On the contrary, guilt can cause a lack of motivation. It can be rooted in low self-esteem and increase our tendency to take responsibility for situations that happen unrelated to us. This unhealthy guilt is one of the core characteristics of many mental disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder or depression.
How does the guilt affect our self-awareness?
First, how is the guilt connected to self-awareness?
Some experts say that guilt can be useful in gaining better self-understanding because it teaches us when we harm someone. However, this is not entirely accurate.
There is a big difference between guilt and it's more positive “colleague” – responsibility. Taking responsibility for the things we did or didn't do has a great role in living a self-aware life. On the other hand, guilt is one of the many things you should give up if you want to become more self-aware.
Taking responsibility starts with acknowledging a difference between things we are responsible for and those we are not. This is not as easy as it seems. People tend to take responsibility for all sorts of things, some of which they have no influence over, which then leads to guilt.
You are responsible only for yourself. Remember that. You are responsible for your own actions, thoughts, and emotions. You are in control of them, therefore you are responsible for them.
You are not responsible for other people and what they do or don't do. Their actions, thoughts, and emotions are under their control, and therefore, their responsibility.
For example, if you do something and another person becomes angry or sad in response, it is not your responsibility. You are responsible only for what you have done, but you are not responsible for how people feel about your behaviours.
Once you remember and accept this, giving up on guilt, and thus developing self-awareness, will become much easier.
Why is it important to give up the guilt?
As previously stated, guilt plays a great role in many mental disorders. It leads to unproductive behaviours like ruminations, which compromise your self-awareness by not letting you remain in the present.
If you feel like you have done something wrong toward another person you must take responsibility for it.
The best thing you can do is talk to the person, admit your mistake, say how you feel about the situation, and assess whether anything can be done to make it right. If that is not an option, if your mistake is irreversible, just admit to yourself that you made a mistake. Embrace it as a valuable experience that has taught you something about yourself and others, and then let it go.
Feeling guilty won't prevent you from making the same mistake again, but learning from the experience will. Guilt is more likely to drive you into similar situations because you are determined to make it right.
People tend to unconsciously replay their behaviours in new situations and with new people in order to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it. They usually end up making the same mistake all over again. This happens if we didn’t think our actions through completely, nor learned from previous experiences.
This process only reinforces the low-self esteem that guilt is usually based on, and additionally makes a good ground for new guilt to be formed. As you can conclude, it is circular and bad for your mental health.
How do we give up on guilt?
Giving up on guilt is not a one day job. It is demanding, and you’ll need to practice it for months, even years, until you reach your goal. However, as the ultimate aim is becoming self-aware, it is worth the effort.
We’ll give you some exercises that’ll help you in achieving this goal. You will notice that these practices for letting go of the guilt are very similar to ones that experts recommend in developing self-awareness. This is the case because it is very hard to separate the two processes; one depends on the other.
Here are the exercises that can help you:
1. Understand your guilt
As mentioned earlier, a proactive way to handle your guilt is to take responsibility for everything you’ve done. This means that you should face the emotions you are feeling, experience the thoughts it brings up, and identify its cause.
These steps are most efficiently done by writing a journal. It will release the negative energy and give you an opportunity to get to know yourself better. You’ll find out what works best for you, what are the hardest obstacles, and most importantly, which is the general theme you usually feel guilty about. Through this practice, you will know what parts of yourself you’ll need to work on, and which aspects of your life need special attention.
Also, if you experience similar feelings after some time, you can always go back to your journal and find out what helped you the last time you felt guilty.
Understanding yourself completely is the primary goal of self-awareness. Understanding each emotion you feel is a necessary part of the process.
2. Reality check
Talk to your friends, family members, or partner about what happened before you felt guilty.
When people are observing events in their life, they don’t always do so realistically. As a result, they usually end up feeling guilty about things constructed purely in their heads with little or no connection to the real events. For this reason we need someone else to provide us with a more objective perspective on what occurred.
You can always seek professional help if you believe that you need some further guiding through the process. Therapists often serve as a mirror which shows us our thinking errors (4) more clearly.
3. Make amends and forgive yourself
Taking responsibility for things you’ve done means doing what you can to rectify your mistakes; let them go if this is not possible. Confess what you have done, to yourself and others, and discuss possible solutions. It may be painful, but you’ll feel relief afterward.
If you feel guilty about something you’ve done to someone who can’t or won’t talk to you anymore, or if you only feel guilty about not achieving standards you set for yourself, you can handle it this way:
Take two chairs, sit on one and position the other in front of you, as if you are sitting opposite to a real person. Sit comfortably and take a moment to visualize the person you want to make amends to, or the part of yourself that you feel you’ve let down.
Talk to the chair in front of you. Tell the person you imagine sitting there all of the things you wanted to say, but you haven’t had a chance to. Apologize if you need to.
Then imagine what that person would say back to you in a forgiving manner. You can even sit in the opposite chair and say the words you think that individual would say in response. Return to your chair, thank them for their forgiveness, and take a moment to feel the emotions set off by this conversation.
This can help you deal with the situation at the current moment and stop living in the past. Also, you’ll grasp your emotions better, accept them, and be aware of them.
These are only some of many ways you can let go of guilt on your journey to self-awareness. If they are not working for you, or you came up with ones that suit you better – that’s okay. Do whatever feels right for you.
Once you become more self-aware all of these things will begin to occur naturally.