Almost all of us have experienced that knot in the stomach, those pangs of guilt, or brooding anxiety that comes from doing something we don’t think we should. No matter how much we avoid the unpleasant feelings, they come back in a flash when we remember what we did wrong.

Believe it or not, these feelings are actually good for us. Humans are biologically hardwired to feel guilt. The punitive feelings of guilt act as boundaries that deter us from alienating our chosen communities, letting down our loved ones, and harming ourselves. This series on “lingering guilt” suggests that guilt is a very useful emotion. That is, until it isn’t.

Neurosciencist LeDoux suggests that all emotions have motivational purposes. They are neurological “calls to action” towards ensuring our safety, adequate resources, and connection with others. Guilt motivates us to rectify our mistakes and apologise for our lapses in judgment. But what happens when there is no way to make amends?

For example, when we care for someone, guilt may arise when we can’t provide all of the support that they want or need. When we survive severe accidents, trauma, or war, we can experience guilt if we faired better than others. We may be consumed by, “Why me?” And we may feel responsible for the outcome in some way. Or we may feel intense guilt when we put our own needs before the needs of others.

In such instances, we may feel motivated to rectify the situation, but we can’t or are unwilling to, which makes it very difficult to put the guilt feelings behind us.

Lingering guilt can drain our energy and lead to more serious psychological issues, like isolation, depression, and anxiety. When there is no way to make amends, the only way to alleviate our guilt is to forgive ourselves. But self-forgiveness is not as easy as it sounds. In his book, Emotional First Aid, Psychologist Guy Winch suggests that self-forgiveness is a process rather than a decision.

Forgive Yourself

Self-forgiveness is not the same as accepting or condoning our behaviour. It is in fact the opposite; it is taking an honest look at our actions and taking authentic responsibility for the harm that we caused. Winch suggests these research-based steps to authentically forgive ourselves and finally “let go” of our guilt.

1. Acknowledge that the guilt is serving no productive purpose in your life. Is it motivating you to do something positive or change in some way? If the answer is, “No,” then it’s time to let go.

2. Take full responsibility for your actions. Unless we give an honest and accurate account of our actions, we will not be able to authentically forgive ourselves. Glossing over the harm that we caused will result in the guilt feelings bubbling up at some later date. Winch suggests this writing exercise:

-Describe the event and your actions. Write down a thorough account. Be as honest as possible, no one else will read this.

-Go through the description and take out excuses or qualifiers. For example, delete statements like: She made a bigger deal of it than it was. Or, he did it to me first.

-Summarize the harm that you caused both tangibly and emotionally. She lost trust in me. I embarrassed her. She lost face at work.

-Go through the description again and make sure that it is realistic and accurate. It is important to not minimize or inflate your culpability. Ask: If someone were to make a film based on your description of events, would the film look like the actual event?

– Consider extenuating circumstances. Do this only after you have completed the first four steps.

Ask yourself:

  • Was the harm intentional? If so, why?
  • If not, what was the original intention? What went wrong?
  • What extenuating circumstances contributed to it?
  • Try to understand the full context of the situation.

3. Take steps to make changes in your thinking, lifestyle, behaviour, or priorities that will ensure that you will avoid similar mistakes or actions in the future.

4. Atone or make meaningful reparations. What contributions, commitments, or efforts can you make that feel substantial enough to earn your self-forgiveness? Do one of them.

5. Create a short ritual to mark the end of atonement. Find a way to note completion of penance. Language of Emotions author, Karla McLaren, suggests writing the guilt-inducing situation on a piece of parchment paper and then burning it. Whatever ritual you choose, this is the point when you make peace and stop punishing yourself with your own negative feelings.

6. Reengage in life. The ritual may feel like weight has been lifted off your shoulders, so celebrate! Do something that you enjoy or spend time with friends.

Our guilt feelings are there to motivate us; sometimes if only to address an unresolved issue within ourselves. But what if there are too many guilt-inducing issues to forgive? What if our inner critics have become so strong and disparaging that we always feel guilty about something. In the next article in the series about lingering guilt, we’ll discuss guilt-proneness and what to do about it.

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