As I mentioned in last week’s blog we all experience both healthy and unhealthy guilt. Guilt can be related to things we did or didn’t do. People often deal with guilt, like other negative emotions, through various defense mechanisms. For example, addictions are one way we attempt to numb our emotional pain and avoid dealing with negative emotions. We may overeat to avoid our feelings. The bottom line is that this emotion can consume an excessive amount of our thought, energy, and focus. Guilt can prevent us from learning from our experiences and prevent us from being honest with ourselves and others. What can be done to reduce our feelings of unhealthy guilt?
Once you’ve discerned the purpose and reason for the guilt feelings, you can create a game plan for resolution. In some cases, you may need to make amends, fix the problem, and learn from your behavior. Creating time-limited guilt, such as a 5-minute guilt-fest, may enable you to let it go quicker. In many cases the answer to relieving guilt will require forgiveness of self. I often encourage patients to write a letter to themselves describing their mistakes and the emotions tied to those experiences and then to choose self-forgiveness. Letter writing and/or journallng can be a valuable tool to confront and release negative emotion even if those feelings are directed at ourselves.
Our negative and irrational thinking can be generated and perpetuated by guilt. People with guilt tend to over-personalize and beat up on themselves. Guilt can keep us stuck in self-destruct mode and prevent us from healthy self-care. Reframing our thoughts so that we don’t blame ourselves reflexively and assume it’s our fault is helpful. As we release our feelings of guilt we are better able to say no, set limits, and maintain healthy boundaries. Be kind to yourself, accept your humanness, and empower yourself through self-forgiveness. Decide that your New Year’s resolution is to let go of the mistakes from the past, choose to not feel unduly guilty, and start the year with a clean slate.