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13 Actionable Tips for How To Stop Feeling Guilty—Especially About Things You Can’t Change

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Photo: Getty Images/Thana Faroq
The reflex to feel guilty when we suspect our words or actions have crossed a line is super common. A survey of 2,000 American parents conducted in 2017 found that they feel an average of 23 pangs of guilt every week about decisions they’ve made. And in a 2012 survey of 450 college students, between 60 and 70 percent of them scored high in guilt proneness, meaning they actually anticipate feelings of guilt before they even do anything. But while feeling guilty isn't all bad (it's part of what encourages us to act in our and others' best interest), lingering guilt isn't helpful—especially if it's related to something you can't change. Thankfully, learning how to stop feeling guilty is doable with time and new perspective-taking.

First, though, it's essential to categorize what exactly you're trying to stop feeling bad about—and whether or not it's worthy of any guilty feelings. On the one hand, some of that guild might even be serving a productive purpose: “Guilt can be extraordinarily positive because that’s what motivates people to apologize, to do things differently, to try to repair a rupture in a relationship or some sort of conflict,” says clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst Dana Charatan, PsyD. In fact, research shows a correlation between people who are guilt-prone and likelihood to show empathy, exhibit other prosocial behaviors that can benefit relationships, and even self-forgive.

"Most people tend to feel guilty even if they haven’t done anything wrong when they have extra-high expectations of themselves." —Thea Gallagher, PsyD

But, on the other hand, feeling guilty about something you can't change or something that doesn't have much impact on anyone but yourself—like, for example, failing to exercise on schedule or fold the laundry one day—is counterproductive. “Most people tend to feel guilty even if they haven’t done anything wrong when they have extra-high expectations of themselves,” says clinical psychologist Thea Gallagher, PsyD. “They somehow feel that they’re letting themselves down when they don’t meet those expectations.”

And when that unhelpful guilt is given the space to fester, it can start to physically weigh you down. In fact, when researchers conducting a 2013 study on guilt asked participants to recall a time when they did something unethical and then rate their subjective feelings about their own body weight as compared to their average, most people actually felt heavier. To lighten that load, read on for expert advice on how to stop feeling guilty, and move forward with a more positive frame of mind.

Here are 13 actionable tips for how to stop feeling guilty, according to mental-health experts

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, nor will it help you figure out how to stop feeling guilty about it. “It’s important to understand that you made the decision you did with the best information that you had at the time,” says Dr. Gallagher.

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,” says licensed clinical psychologist John Mayer, PhD, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life. 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. Catch guilt early.

Since people experience guilt differently, recognizing your own early warning signs can help you to circumvent the feeling before it affects you on a deeper level. Take a moment to reflect on exactly what’s going on when you begin to feel guilty; are you feeling anxious, paranoid, unproductive?

“There is a difference between guilt at a level 2 and guilt at a level 10,” says Dr. Charatan. She recommends trying to catch guilt when it’s around a 3—a stage where you can still do something productive with it.

3. 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 therapist Lesli Doares, LMFT. But being able to take a more realistic view of any particular action or event can be immensely helpful on the journey to learning how to stop feeling guilty.

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, smaller things like forgetting to unload the dishwasher or even forgetting to call a friend won't feel like such monumental failures. (And guess what? They're simply not.)

4. 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, says licensed clinical psychologist Alicia H. Clark, PsyD, author of Hack Your Anxiety. But focusing on the positives in your life can help neutralize this tendency, 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 that you still showed up to support her.

5. Ask people in your life how they actually feel.

You may assume that your partner or friend feels like they’re getting the shaft thanks to your intense work hours, as an example, but the reality may be completely different—which is why it's essential to ask them directly how your actions or statements made (or are making) them feel.

“If they're feeling hurt, it's also important to get examples from them of the behaviors or actions you took that made them feel that way. Also, ask how they feel cared for by you, and whether there is something else you can do that would also help them feel cared for,” says Doares. “Often, we make assumptions about what is supportive instead of letting the other person tell us.” Actionable feedback (or, perhaps, the 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.

6. 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.

7. 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, says Dr. Gallagher, which is why it's smart to identify how you'd speak to a friend who was 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.”

8. Practice self-forgiveness.

In a similar vein, it's important to develop the capacity for being kind to yourself—no matter the magnitude of the action or statement that triggered the guilt. “We’re all human. Everybody does things that they regret. That’s part of life,” says Dr. Charatan. If you don’t have compassion for yourself, it’s hard to expect that anyone else will have compassion for you or that you’ll be able to have compassion for others, she adds. By framing your would-be guilt trips in this way, you're less likely to be self-critical to an extent that's unproductive.

9. 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,” says Doares. “Making mistakes are simply actions, not character traits.” Also, it's important to understand that there’s not necessarily a right or wrong way to do many things in life—just many different ways. And figuring out how to stop feeling guilt could simply be a matter of regarding your action or behavior as simply different from a societal or personal expectation, but not necessarily worse.

10. Be okay with being uncomfortable

Similar to a tough workout or a meditation practice focused on learning to be okay with stillness, a key aspect of learning how to stop feeling bad about something you can't change involves being able to tolerate the associated frustration. “You don’t always need to make things better to alleviate feelings of guilt,” says Dr. Charatan. “Instead, it’s about reckoning with the grief of not being able to fix things.”

Once you’re able to sit with the experience of guilt long enough to figure out where it’s coming from and what you can do with it that might be reparative (instead of shame- or anxiety-producing), the guilt may very well dissipate.

11. 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,” says Dr. Gallagher. “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 how me-time benefits 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,” says Dr. Gallagher.

12. Practice mindfulness

Practicing mindfulness regularly can help you gain perspective into why you act in the ways that you do, 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, and then determine if it’s happening right now, or if it's reflective of something in the past—and out of your control.

13. 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’ve tried these techniques for how to stop feeling guilty, 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.

Additional reporting by Sara Angle.

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