Everyone feels guilty at various points in time. Still, there’s a big difference between experiencing the no-fun sensation when you’ve actually done something wrong versus when you, well, haven’t.
Case in point: Feeling guilty because you broke your diet, didn’t fold the laundry when you told yourself you would, or actually made time for yourself. “Most people tend to feel guilty even if they haven’t done anything wrong because they have higher expectations for themselves,” says Thea Gallagher, PsyD. “They somehow feel that they’re letting themselves down when they don’t meet those expectations.” And licensed clinical psychologist Alicia H. Clark, PsyD, author of Hack Your Anxiety, says these expectations are often born from rules and standards fostered while growing up (read: they’re deep-seated).
“Most people tend to feel guilty even if they haven’t done anything wrong because they have higher expectations for themselves. They somehow feel that they’re letting themselves down when they don’t meet those expectations.” —Thea Gallagher, PsyD
While guilt certainly has an ugly side, it’s not all bad. After all, it’s an emotion that can help motivate you, points out licensed clinical psychologist John Mayer, PhD, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life. Still, feeling guilty all the time is doing you zero favors in the mental-health department—so use the following strategies to stop it from occupying so much space in your life.
Check out 10 expert-backed ways to stop feeling guilty, once and for all.
1. Own your choices
Once you act on a choice you’ve made, it’s done—and agonizing about what you should have done differently won’t change anything about it. “It’s important to understand that you made the decision you did with the best information that you had at the time,” Dr. Gallagher says.
Furthermore, dwelling on what you did or didn’t do is just going to make you feel worse. “Taking this ownership of your choices puts a stop to the overthinking,” Dr. Mayer says. If you’re struggling with accepting your choice, try this technique: Think about the decision you made, know that you did your best, and recognize that you might approach it differently in the future. Then, let it go.
2. Put things in perspective
It’s easy to think that something is a bigger deal than it actually is. “We have a tendency to inflate the importance of negative experiences,” says licensed marriage and family therapist Lesli Doares. “Being able to take a more realistic view of any particular action or event is helpful.”
Well great…but how? To start, practice gratitude for the basic necessities in life that you have, like food, clothing, and shelter. Once you can do that, forgetting to unload the dishwasher won’t feel like such a monumental failure. And, guess what? It’s simply not.
3. Focus on the great things you do
Most people have a negativity bias, meaning they prioritize negative situations and consequences in an effort to avoid harm and pain, Dr. Clark says. But focusing on the positives in your life can help neutralize this, which can in turn ease anxiety and guilt.
So, challenge yourself to balance out every critical or guilty thought with a positive one. For example, if you feel guilty that you were late to your friend’s play, follow up the thought by reminding yourself you still showed up to support her, and that’s great.
4. Ask people in your life how they actually feel
You may assume that your partner or friends feel like they’re getting the shaft thanks to your intense work hours, but the reality may be completely different. But, if it is the case, investigate how your specific actions are making them feel that way. “Get examples. Also ask how they feel cared for by you and whether there is something else that would also help them feel cared for,” Doares says. “Often, we make assumptions about what is supportive instead of letting the other person tell us.”
Actionable feedback (or knowledge that you’re not neglecting your loved one at all), empowers you to effectively respond to a situation instead of attempting to figure it out on your own.
5. Break down what’s fueling your guilt spiral
Might you be feeling guilty because of how you’ve always reacted in similar situations? If so, Dr. Gallagher recommends “following the chain down.” First, identify whether you actually did anything wrong. Then try to understand what’s fueling your emotions. “Ask yourself, ‘what purpose is this serving?’” Gallagher says. If you can’t come up with a valid answer, it’s time to cut yourself some slack.
6. Think about how you’d treat someone else in the same situation
People tend to be a lot more kind with others than they are with themselves, Dr. Gallagher says, which is why it’s smart to identify how you’d speak to a friend feeling guilt pangs. “You probably wouldn’t say, ‘You’re really sucking at this. Better get yourself together,’” she says. “You’re holding yourself to a different standard than you hold others—and it’s unfair to you.”
7. Understand that things aren’t always “right” or “wrong”
It’s easy to think in absolute terms when it comes to guilt, but life doesn’t work that way. “Nothing is all good or bad, and that includes people,” Doares says. “We are human, and that means we make mistakes. Those are actions, not character traits.”
“Nothing is all good or bad, and that includes people. We are human, and that means we make mistakes. Those are actions, not character traits.” — Lesli Doares, therapist
It’s also important to understand that there’s not necessarily a right or wrong way to do many things in life—just many different ways.
8. Accept that it’s totally cool to take care of your own needs
“Taking care of your needs is a natural and healthy part of life,” Dr. Gallagher says. “If you don’t take care of yourself, how can you help anyone else?”
Next time you feel guilty for, say, taking a yoga class because it cuts into time you could spend with your family or because it requires you to spend money on yourself, think about the effects me-time gifts you. Do you feel more energized and refreshed? Better able to care for your loved ones? If so, it’s worth it. “Look at it as an investment in you as a person,” Dr. Gallagher says.
9. Practice mindfulness
Practicing mindfulness regularly can help you gain perspective into why you do certain things and can also help you give yourself a break. Take a moment to breathe and tune in to what’s happening with your body, Doares says. Once you identify what you’re feeling, follow the thought to its point of origin, then decide if it’s happening right now. “Bringing yourself into the present and letting go of the past is a big part of mindfulness,” she says.
10. Embrace that guilt is often a useless emotion
Sometimes, guilt can be a positive source of motivation, but often it simply has no purpose. “Guilt is about the past and nothing can change the past,” Doares says. “What is possible is taking responsibility for any part you played in the past and focusing on the present and the future.”
If you find that guilt is a regular struggle for you, see what you can do to tweak your thinking so that it’s less constant in your life. But if you’ve tried these techniques and you still feel like the pesky emotion is ruling your life, it might be time to talk to a mental-health professional who can offer individualized solutions so you can ditch the chronic guilt, once and for all.
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