Did you ever wonder if it is possible to live a guilt free life?
Perhaps you have wondered if it is even moral to give up the guilt. After all, guilt has become so embedded in our Judeo-Christian culture that we almost take guilt for granted as an essential indicator of a “good person.”
So at the risk of sounding like a heretic, I wanted to take guilt on this week and wonder what it would be like to live without it. To wonder whether it is still possible to live a moral and ethical life without the burden of guilt. Feel free, of course to share your thoughts at the end of this article.
So let’s begin with understanding what guilt is.
One accepted definition is:
“A bad feeling caused by knowing or thinking that you have done something bad or wrong (i.e. compromised one’s own standard of conduct or violated a moral standard).“
On its face, a brief experience with a guilty feeling may actually be really helpful. Based upon the definition above, the bad feeling that arises can actually serve as a red flag of sorts to let us know that there is a reason to pause and pay attention. Perhaps we inadvertently acted in a way that hurt someone or acted upon a lapse in judgment that violated one of those moral codes. We are human, so things happen and the bad feeling that arises is like an internal mechanism that helps us to return to a state of awareness about what has happened.
The problems with guilt come in when we linger in it for hours, days, weeks, months, and dare I say even years!
PROBLEM #1: The first problem with prolonged guilt is that it activates our internal stress response and from a state of feeling perpetually stressed, we become compromised physically and mentally. In short, it is a waste of energy – energy that drains away from a host of other more productive and enjoyable endeavors in order to maintain this state of feeling badly.
PROBLEM #2: The second problem I have with guilt is that sometimes we expend all this energy feeling guilty for something that did not really happen or did not actually have the negative consequences we believed it to have. Notice the definition includes things we ‘think’ we did wrong. The truth is that many times, we are wrong! How many of us have spent days feeling guilty about doing something that we thought hurt someone only to find out later that they were never really bothered by it! Guilt without cause is certainly a waste of energy. It is much more productive to check things out rather than to mire in guilty feelings.
PROBLEM #3: The third problem I have with guilt is that we usually assume that if our actions or words hurt someone or caused discomfort that we are supposed to feel guilty. After all, it is wrong to hurt another person, right? The truth is that sometimes the hurt and discomfort are essential parts of the growing process. In fact, it is not only normal but essential to pass through periods of discomfort in order to make a change or grow in a new way. This kind of hurt does not require guilt at all because allowing someone to experience discomfort may be the most loving action you can take.
PROBLEM #4: The fourth and biggest problem I have with prolonged guilt is the fact that it serves as a cop-out from taking productive, restorative action. It is much easier to ‘feel guilty’ about something and believe that you deserve some absolution because you are accepting the personal beating of the guilty feeling than to step up and take action to make amends or set things right if it is possible. It is a very short road from guilt to shame and once we feel the shame, we can be stuck for a long time and then never really take action to right the situation.
So here are some easy to follow steps to rid yourself of guilt once and for all.
STEP 1: As soon as you feel that pang of a guilty feeling, welcome it and thank the feeling for alerting you to something important that requires your attention.
STEP 2: Be gentle with yourself and remind yourself that to err is human and that if you did make a mistake or hurt someone, this simply makes you human. (It does not make you a horrible person!)
STEP 3: Have the courage to check out whether you actually did something wrong or hurt someone the way you believe you did. No sense in wallowing in a guilty feeling for something that may never have happened or that was not received as badly as you imagine.
STEP 4: Apologize or do what you can to make amends. That’s all you can do and it IS enough. No matter what you did, prolonged guilt will not change it, but stepping up to sincerely apologize or make amends can radically alter things.
STEP 5: Pause and see what lesson you can take from this experience. The truth is that any time spent feeling guilty is a total waste of time if you do not spend some of it reflecting on what you learned or what you want to do differently the next time.
STEP 6: Let it go. Do not make your release of guilt contingent upon someone else’s acceptance of your apology. Some people accept apologies easily and others do not, and this is something you cannot change. Apologize, make amends, learn the important lesson, and let it go because much more will be lost if you resign yourself to living in a state of guilt.
So, no matter how big or how small the feeling of guilt or the source of the guilt may seem, there is no benefit to holding onto it for a prolonged period of time. Let the feeling help make you aware of what has happened, and then follow the steps above and let it go.
Adina T. Laver, MBA, M.Ed., CPC, is a Consciousness Coach who specializes in helping people develop consciousness mastery so they can achieve the goals and life they want. Adina is the founder of two companies, Divorce Essentials which specializes in working with individuals and couples who are considering or navigating divorce to have a healthy experience and Courage to be Curious, a company dedicated to cultivating consciousness mastery for those who are committed to the path of self-awareness in all matters of life, love and leadership.