Humans are the only animals on the planet who experience guilt for the same items over and over. All other animals may experience guilt (dog guiltily barring his teeth after having gotten into the garbage anyone?) but once the situation is over, it's over. They learn from it or don’t, but they no longer feel guilty about what happened. Humans, on the other hand, tend to replay their guilt over and over again. We don’t allow ourselves to move on, instead we torture ourselves countless times for something that happened in the past. Worst still, sometimes we are with people who force us to relive our mistakes and feel guilty every time an argument flares up. Guilt, whether self-inflicted or constantly brought forward by the actions of another, can shift your entire perspective on life, yourself and your relationships.

Stop the Cycle

The first step to overcoming guilt is to understand what starts the guilt cycle to begin with. The next time you feel guilty, think back to what instigated feeling that way. Was it something someone said or was it your own thoughts going over your mistakes? Either way, it is time to stop the cycle. Let me share two examples. For years I would punish myself for something I’d done as a teenager (I lied to my parents for a whole year and put them through a very unwarranted hell). As an adult, I love and respect my parents beyond words. It would tear me up inside every time I thought about it. It shifted my perspective on who I was as a person and even who I was in my eyes to my parents. This happened for years until one day I had a breakdown. I had said something incredibly minor and slightly embarrassed my mother in front of some distant family members. It really wasn’t a big deal but when I got home, I broke down into tears. I was bawling my eyes out because I felt like I’d let my mother down. It was then that I realized I was holding myself to an expectation of perfection, always trying to make up for my guilt when it came to my parents. I realized that my mom and dad love me for me and here I was doing everything I could to not “let them down.”  It took reaching a breaking point for me to realize I needed to stop my cycle. Even if my parents weren’t endlessly supportive, it wasn’t and isn’t my business if they think I’m a bad kid. It's my business to try and be as happy as I can and to let myself live without the pressure that guilt can provide.

The second example of stopping the cycle took someone else to pull me out of a guilt cycle, except in this case I was making my husband relieve his mistakes. Every time we’d fight, I’d bring up the pain he’d “caused me” (looking back they weren’t big deals) and make him feel terrible for his past. Finally, he sat me down and told me that if we were going to make it, we’d have to stop holding grudges on our mistakes, stop making the other person feel guilty, and just move on together. It was then that I realized I’d been holding onto my pain, hadn’t forgiven him, and was making him “pay” every time we fought. It wasn’t right of me to do that and it wasn’t healthy to hold a grudge. So I’ve worked very hard to let go of the past and look forward to our future.

In both cases, it took stopping the cycle (my breakdown or my husband) to realize the cycle of guilt my life was in.

Change the Mindset

Now that we’ve figured out what jump starts our guilt, it's time to break the cycle and change our mindset. Instead of wallowing in the guilt, what will you do about it? If you are a regular reader, you know I am all about creating a game plan. So to change your mind about guilt, you need to create a plan. The next time you feel guilty, what will you do? Sometimes it just means calling up a person and apologizing. Other times it can mean doing something to rectify the situation. For longer term guilt, it takes looking at things from a different perspective. Does the reason I feel guilty matter in the long run? If you’re feeling guilty over the treatment of a person, ask yourself if the other person is holding it against you. Chances are they aren’t and if they are… it is their issue, not yours (after you’ve apologized of course). Ask yourself how this guilt is affecting your life. Has it changed who you are as a person? Has it held you back in any way? If so, it may be time to figure out why you feel guilty and work to fixing it.

Nothing is Perfect

Feeling guilty or instigating guilt on another person becomes a habit and just like breaking any habit, it will take time to let go of your pain and live guilt free. Realize that nothing is perfect and it will take several small victories to lead to feeling less guilty. Sometimes I still have trouble feeling good enough around my parents and sometimes I have to remind myself that my husband has lived with his own guilt over mistakes and it is not my place to throw them into his face. Nothing is perfect and overcoming the habit of guilt will always be a work in progress but once you stop letting guilt rule your life and relationships, you can be a happier you.

Photo by Christoph Bengtsson Lissalde