Guilt adds very little to our lives and takes away so much. The only “use” that guilt can serve is the motivation to change, and even that is debatable. The motivation to do anything boils down to two primal desires: a) avoid pain b) gain pleasure. If guilt can motivate you to do anything, it is because you did something that felt bad and you don’t want to experience that pain again. For the sake of this post and an attempt to be objective, I’ll say the only positive “use” guilt serves would be motivation to change.
However, holding on to guilt makes people feel lousy about themselves. It can make them feel unworthy and keep them “stuck.” Sometimes, feelings of guilt get ignored and pushed down, seemingly forgotten. A person may not even know they until they come out “sideways”(ex: lack of confidence, anger, depression, anxiety) What’s worse is if someone doesn’t even know they are holding on to guilt, they’ll never see the connection between that and the lack of joy, happiness, or inner peace.
Guilt festers when people allow themselves to dwell on past mistakes, thinking about how badly they messed up, or deny it without trying to resolve it. Either way, it’s a trap. It allows the bad feelings to develop into damaging beliefs that do not serve them or anyone else and keeps them in a warped cycle of destruction. A damaging belief is one that is a judgmental lie (I’m a terrible person because...) and results in a faulty thinking pattern that comingles guilt and shame. (I don’t deserve A because I did B). Whether we realize it or not, when decisions and actions are fueled by guilt, the manifestation is a lack of confidence.
Here are two prime examples:
When people feel bad about themselves, they quickly give up on things vs. face challenges. They start a project, and when it gets tricky, they buy into the belief that their past mistakes prevent them from accomplishing anything in the present. They give up because they felt lousy and then feel worse because they gave up.
People who harbor bad feelings about themselves often try to overcompensate to make up for it. Instead of facing the root of the issue, they might either tolerate unacceptable treatment (feeling they deserve it) or do more than they need to even it out. For example, you talk badly about a friend behind his/her back yet when you go out together you insist on paying for lunch because somewhere inside you (consciously or not) feel you owe him/her something.
As an adult-child and recovering addict, I felt guilty about the ways I behaved in my addiction. That pain did motivate me to change, but the guilt kept me stuck. I was a sophomore in high school, and I stole money and cases of wine to support my addiction. As I cleared up the wreckage of my past, I dreaded coming clean to my dad and step-mom and procrastinated for years. In the interim, I was now in my 20’s, sober, and still tolerating a lot of put-downs and micro-aggressions from both. I could not stand up for myself. I didn’t know why I just couldn’t. Until I finally wiped the slate clean by writing an apology letter and a check. Once I had swept my side of the street, I could no longer take the criticisms and insults quietly. Why? BECAUSE I DIDN’T HAVE TO. I didn’t have to before, but my guilt kept me stuck.
Here’s a story from a client I worked with a few years ago. She had a spending problem and ran up several thousand dollars on her husband’s credit card. They fought intensely, and it nearly ended their marriage. They did stay married, but my sense was it never got fully resolved. He never forgave her, and she never excused herself. He later started having affairs, and while she knew it, she could not bring herself to confront him until it was impossible to deny it any longer. Why did she wait so long? She felt guilty about the card and several other “imperfections” she believed about the kind of wife she was. Not one of those reasons justified putting up with infidelity (for years) and at the core of the issue was that feeling of guilt about not being perfect.
A less dramatic story is one I heard from a coach-friend. Her client was very qualified for promotion from sales representative to sales manager and was chosen for an interview. During the meeting, he inexplicably became ambiguous and timid. Later he reflected on the conversation. He became acutely aware that he was feeling bad because he often lied about his whereabouts on sales calls. He would tell his managers he was visiting clients while he was running around doing personal errands. He also had stuffed guilty feelings because, at times, he exaggerated services to customers to close a deal. He developed a faulty belief that he wasn’t a good salesperson at all because of that. His ah-ha moment came when he connected the limiting beliefs he formed to the tangled web he created by lying and his underperformance in the interview.
Let go of guilt with two simple steps (not easy, just simple).
A: Whenever possible, right the wrongs. It’s the decent thing to do, and being a decent human being IS at the core of confidence. Not only is it the proper thing to do, as a bonus, it also frees us from the toxicity that keeps us trapped.
B: Forgive yourself. No one is perfect; we all say and do things we later wish we hadn’t. We all make mistakes and quite honestly, many of us, myself included, really %$#@-up sometimes. Learn from it. Sometimes changing is as simple as not doing it again; sometimes, we must go deeper and understand the “why.” Whichever the case may be, be honest with yourself. If that’s hard for you, pretend you are talking to a close and dear friend. Would you forgive them? What advice would you offer? Can you take that advice yourself? Why not? What limiting beliefs get in the way?
Once you start to recognize guilt, you have choices. You can keep beating yourself up, or you can reprogram them and treat them for what they are…lies! If nothing seems to work, you may want to talk with someone experienced in these things. Therapists can be a great help, and so can life-coaches. While they do use different approaches, they are both skilled at helping you identify and reprogram the faulty beliefs that hold you hostage to feeling bad about yourself.
Remember, no matter where you are now or where you have been, you deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, you deserve to be happy and free to live on purpose, and above all, YOU ARE ENOUGH.