By Jeremy Godwin
How do you process feelings of guilt? How do you deal with guilt in a healthy way? That’s what I’m talking about this week on… Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast full of practical advice for better mental health.
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This podcast episode was originally released on 27 March, 2022.
Hello and welcome to Episode 124, and thanks so much for joining me!
If you’re new here, hi! I’m Jeremy Godwin and each week I look at one specific topic (like anxiety, motivation, heartbreak etc), and I share practical advice you can apply immediately to improve your mental health. Back in 2011 I had a major breakdown which led me into a period of severe anxiety and depression, and I couldn’t find many resources for dealing with my condition that were straightforward and practical. That took me on a journey of learning more about mental health and I went back to university to study psychology and sociology, and now I focus on delivering what I couldn’t find — simple advice on how to improve your mental wellbeing, from someone who actually understands what it’s like to go through mental health challenges.
So in this week’s episode I’m talking about guilt and I’ll be covering what guilt is, why understanding guilt matters and how to manage guilt. So, let’s talk!
Show me a person that has never made a mistake in their life and I will show you a liar. Whether it’s because of something that we said or did, or perhaps something that we didn’t do or didn’t say, we all make mistakes from time to time or we might do something that is less-than-ideal in terms of the type of person we hope to be — hell, I just did it at the vet clinic the other day, when I became annoyed about a lack of communication with me… nothing major, and in hindsight not something worth getting annoyed about (just a substitution of my cat’s medication that means now he has to have double the tablets twice a day, and they didn’t tell me about it until I turned up to collect the prescription refill so I was annoyed). I could have handled it better (I mean, it could have been worse; I just told them I was irritated rather than actually getting pissed off with them) but, still, it happened and that led me to spending a few days feeling guilty over it because I don’t want to be like that.
We are all human and that means we are all imperfect, and that also means we are very likely to make mistakes and we’re even more likely to have extremely high expectations for ourselves (maybe even unrealistic ones) that lead us to feel guilty when we inevitably don’t live up to those impossibly-high standards.
Whether you’re dealing with guilt over something you did do or something you didn’t do, learning how to process guilt is the only healthy way to deal with it — and that’s what I’ll be looking at today.
So let’s explore some definitions and let’s talk about…
What is guilt?
Guilt is a feeling of having committed wrong or failing in an obligation of some type (and that definition comes from the Oxford Dictionary). It’s a fairly unpleasant emotion that is similar to regret and shame, but there are some key differences which I’ll talk about in a moment. As well as having emotional symptoms, guilt often comes with a range of physical symptoms as well such as sleep issues, muscle tension and problems with your stomach and digestive system (think of that ‘churning stomach’ feeling that can go with guilt and you’ll know what I’m talking about).
Before we go any further, I will also note that there’s an additional usage of the word ‘guilt’ (in English there is at least) and that’s when we ‘guilt’ someone into doing something (as in, manipulating them to do something by making them feel guilty about it) — this is often something that some family members can be very good at doing. I’m not covering this type of guilt today, however I wanted to make a note of it and it’s something that I’ve touched on, in one way or another, in several previous episodes (Episode 19 about family and Episode 56 about manipulation) so check those out for more on that type of guilt.
Back to our discussion about your own sense of guilt. From a psychology standpoint, there are some deeper definitions of guilt that might be a bit academic but I think it’s worthwhile sharing a little bit of it here. According to the American Psychological Association (or APA, as it’s commonly known) guilt is “a self-conscious emotion characterized by a painful appraisal of having done (or thought) something that is wrong and often by a readiness to take action designed to undo or mitigate this wrong. It is distinct from shame, in which there is the additional strong fear of one’s deeds being publicly exposed to judgment or ridicule.” (Source: APA https://dictionary.apa.org/guilt)
And you’ll find the link for that article in the transcript, which is available for free at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/episodes.
So let’s pick up on this piece about ‘guilt’ versus ‘shame’ and I’m going to share another short quote, this time from positivepsychology.com, which explains the differences in a fairly straightforward way. The quote is: “…someone who feels guilty regrets some behavior they exhibited, while someone who feels shame regrets some aspect of who they are as a person.”
And that, too, is linked in the transcript. https://positivepsychology.com/shame-guilt/
I wanted to share those definitions because I think we often use ‘guilt’ and ‘shame’ as interchangeable terms, however guilt is more specifically focused on some choice we’ve made, action we’ve taken or behaviour we’ve displayed, whereas ‘shame’ is much bigger and goes a lot deeper in terms of questioning who you are and your sense of worth. Shame is something I covered back in Episode 71 and I also talked about self worth in Episode 78, so the conversation today is going to be much more specific around the choices, actions or behaviours we might feel guilty about.
So here’s the thing: you’re going to mess up sometimes. Why? Because you’re human. I said it before and I’ll say it again; we human beings are imperfect creatures and we cannot ever get it right 100% of the time… and, frankly, I think that’s kind of one of the main points of life; how do you learn from your mistakes? Do you spend eternity wallowing in guilt, or do you pull yourself up and grow as a result from your failures?
To paraphrase something I said about the past back in Episode 94, you are not your guilt; you are what you do with your guilt. And that leads me to the next part of this episode…
Why understanding guilt matters
And it matters because, if left unaddressed, guilt will eat away at your soul.
Guilt is this type of slightly-warped self-regulation thing that we do sometimes where we beat ourselves up mentally and emotionally over some perceived failure or shortcoming. It’s especially common in people dealing with mental health conditions, like anxiety or depression, and it can be this toxic type of self-criticism that puts every little mistake we make under a magnifying glass and uses them as examples of why we’re a failure or we’re not good enough. To put it bluntly, it’s excruciating and it’s exhausting.
I’m recording this about a week and a half before it goes out, and I just spent a fair chunk of my morning today feeling guilty that I started an argument with my partner in the car this morning over an unwashed knife sitting in the kitchen sink — you know, the kind of thing that really annoys you at the time but which actually doesn’t matter in the big scheme of things (and is very unlikely to be something that you remember in five weeks, let alone in five years!). The whole time I was going off there was this voice in my head practically screaming at me to shut the hell up, because that’s not the type of person I want to be, and yet it was like my mouth had a mind of its own! So I spent a few hours afterwards feeling really guilty that I behaved that way over something that was actually pretty dumb to get upset over.
I wanted to share that because guilt is something I know quite well first-hand, especially because I am prone to being easily annoyed and having a bit of a temper, and there have been many, many things that I have felt guilty for over the years, if not decades. I will say that I don’t do regrets (because the past has passed and it cannot be changed, only learned from — something I talked about in Episode 22, about regrets) however I’m no stranger to guilt and, for me at least, it’s usually because my temper has gotten the better of me and I’ve behaved in a way that I’m not happy with (and that’s something I’m continuing to work on with my therapist, who certainly earns her money when she has sessions with me!). I’m saying all of that because it’s important to me that I make it clear that I’m definitely no saint and I don’t have all of the answers when it comes to this stuff; I’m working very hard to improve myself but I don’t get it right all of the time, so what I’m sharing today is the stuff that I’ve learned so far to help me manage it better.
And I say that because I want to highlight the ‘learning’ piece by noting that guilt can be a tormentor or a teacher; the choice is yours. It’s so incredibly easy to fall into the habit of beating yourself up over whatever you did or didn’t do (because we really do like to torment ourselves sometimes), but all that does is keep you stuck in the negative emotions and it doesn’t serve any practical purpose in terms of helping you to move forward… because the only true mistake in life is the one that you don’t learn from.
How do you do that? How do you manage guilt and, more importantly, how do you turn guilt into a teacher? Well, let’s get into the how-to part of today’s episode and let’s talk about…
How to manage guilt
So let’s start with a bit of self awareness and, first, notice the feeling — and I say this because it’s actually fairly difficult to sit with negative and uncomfortable emotions a lot of the time, but if you try to gloss over it then you’re not going to be able to do the rest of the steps I’ll be talking about! Yes, I know guilt can be difficult to feel and it’s really not the most comfortable feeling in the world, but notice when it’s happening and just sit with it so you can see what it’s bringing up to the surface for you mentally and emotionally. Which leads to my next point…
Ask why it’s happening — and this is about digging deeper into your self awareness (which I covered back in Episode 62) so you can be clear on what is really going on. I say this because, most of the time, our words and actions don’t just happen randomly; they’re connected more deeply to what we need. For example, I mentioned earlier about the lecture I gave my partner this morning which wasn’t really about the dirty knife in the sink, but was actually more about the fact that I work from home so after I drop my partner off at work this is then my workspace, and when I have to take time out of my day to tidy up or whatever it makes me feel like my work is less important… even though I know that’s not true, it’s still something that comes up for me every now and then and so by being able to identify why I snapped this morning I can actually begin to look at things we can do to treat the cause of my frustration rather than just the symptom. Also, it highlights for me that I have control issues, which is no real surprise to anyone who knows me but that’s a whole different conversation (actually I covered control back in Episode 48 so you might find that helpful if you’re anything like me!). And that leads to my next point…
Notice what it’s creating — and by this I mean what other emotions, behaviours or actions are happening as a result of the guilty feelings? Because this is about understanding that guilt often has flow-on effects into other areas of our life. For example, you might be ruminating over whatever did or didn’t happen to such a degree that you cannot focus on the things that you want to or need to get done (and I talked about ruminating back in Episode 116). Or maybe you’re so focused on the guilt that you’ve gone into shutdown mode and are avoiding anything and everything (and I covered avoidance in Episode 99). The reason why I’m suggesting you take a moment to notice what else the guilt is creating for you is that it helps build greater self awareness and a deeper level of understanding about what your reactions are to that type of negative feeling, because you’re going to need that information to process the emotion (and I’ll come back to that in a minute). First, however, I would encourage you to try my next point as a way of helping you to notice what is going on, and it is…
Write it out to get it out — and this is one I talk about a lot, and I just explored it in more detail last week in Episode 123, about thoughts, so I won’t go into massive detail other than to say that when you keep these types of feelings, emotions and thoughts all bottled up inside they can actually fester and grow… so let them out. Grab a pen and paper and write your feelings out until you run out of energy, because this helps you to physically release the stuff that you’re feeling. And that leads to my next point…
Work through it — because dealing with guilt requires you to confront it, process it and release it. Be really honest with yourself about what you’re feeling guilty about and why, and instead of focusing on what did or didn’t happen, instead I want to encourage you to focus on what you could do differently next time. What has happened has happened and it cannot be changed, only learned from. Which, funnily enough, is the foundation of my next point…
Consider what the lesson is — because every situation has something to teach us, even if that lesson is just what not to do next time. Using my own example again from this morning, my lesson is that I need to stop myself from just reacting to an annoyance and instead wait until I’m feeling calmer and more rational so I can address the issue in a thoughtful and considered way. So, consider what the lesson might be in your own situation. This step is, in my opinion, the most important of all the bits of advice I’m talking about today, because the only truly effective way to overcome guilt is to learn from it… otherwise it will follow you around as a dull echo of pain. How do you do that? Well that’s my next point…
Learn the lesson — and this is about making changes to apply whatever it is you’ve learned. You might not be able to change the past, but you can certainly choose to think and act differently now and in the future. OK, next…
If you can make it right, then make it right — and I say this one as being more about if you’ve done or said something that has potentially hurt someone else, but it also applies to yourself; take accountability for whatever has or hasn’t happened and if there is something you can do to fix things, even if it’s only a partial fix, then do it. If that means apologising, then apologise. I think often pride and stubbornness can get in the way and I know I’ve had instances in the past where things wouldn’t have escalated if I had just stopped being so stubborn and instead apologised for my part in whatever happened. A couple of things I will say at this point about apologies: first, I know it can be really tough to apologise when both of you are in the wrong, but you have to accept that your decision to apologise isn’t an automatic guarantee of an apology in return; if that’s why you’re saying sorry, to get an apology back, then you’re doing it for the wrong reason… it’s better to have no apology than a pretend one! Secondly, just because you apologise to someone that doesn’t mean that they’re obligated to forgive you, because they’re not. I know that hurts but it’s a fact of life you need to accept, and it’s actually one that leads to my next point…
Be accountable — because what the mistake was is less important than whether or not you take accountability for what you did or didn’t do. This is something I covered in Episode 16, about accountability, and basically my entire point here is to swallow your pride and silence your ego so that you can be accountable if you did something that is making you feel guilty. Why? Because you need to do that in order to move on to my next point…
Let it go — and I say this because if you hold on to the pain and sorrow surrounding whatever it is, you’ll probably find yourself stuck in guilt for a very long time. That doesn’t mean you just go, “OK all done now!” and forget about what happened, but on the other hand don’t torment yourself for eternity because you made a mistake. Can you change it? No. It’s done and it is what it is. Can you learn from it and resolve to do better next time? Absolutely. But in order to do that you have to stop torturing yourself and you have to let the guilt go. I mentioned the ‘writing it out’ thing earlier and it can be particularly helpful to write out all of your guilty feelings then either burn the paper or tear it up into tiny bits and throw it away as a means of releasing those feelings. I talked about letting go in Episode 32 and I also explored the past in Episode 94, so check those out for more advice. And that leads to my next point…
Forgive yourself — because if you can’t forgive yourself, how can you expect other people to?! Like I said before, you’re human and you are never going to get it right 100% of the time. Learn from what happened and grow from it, and move forward. I covered forgiveness back in Episode 44 and while it’s mainly about forgiving others, it’s a useful one to listen to for the topic in general [NOTE: I actually have covered self forgiveness in Episode 80, I just forgot when I was recording the show!]. Also related to the subject of forgiveness is self-kindness, and in fact my next point is…
Be kind to yourself — because a lot of the time we can be unkind to ourselves and all that does is reinforce our sense of guilt and even our sense of failure. Be proactive about improving the way you talk to yourself (which I explained how to do in Episode 9, about self talk) and treat yourself with greater self respect (which I covered in Episode 96). Oh, and I also talked about self worth in Episode 78 which is another good one to help you focus on ways to be kinder to yourself. Another way is with my next point…
Give yourself permission to make mistakes — because mistakes are how we learn and how we grow. I mean, I’m not saying to go out of your way to make a mess of everything every day (it helps if you strive to be the best that you can be!) but know that being your best doesn’t mean being perfect, because perfect does not exist. I’ve covered a few topics in the past that might be helpful: perfectionism in Episode 98, mistakes in Episode 2 and failure in Episode 84, so check those out for more how-to advice. And speaking of advice, my next point is…
Get support — especially if you’ve tried all the stuff I’ve been talking about but you’re still having a tough time shaking those feelings of guilt, or if you’re feeling a relentless sense of guilt over stuff that you just cannot control (like global events or other peoples’ choices, which are their responsibility and not yours). By all means talk to a trusted friend or family member, but for truly objective support and guidance it’s probably going to be much more helpful to speak with a professional like a counsellor or therapist, who can help you to work through things in a more considered way and without the emotional attachment that comes with personal relationships (I see my therapist on a regular basis and it’s played a massive role in helping me to process feelings of guilt so I can let go of them and make changes where I’ve needed to).
Summary and Close-Out
Because when it comes to guilt and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: Guilt can be exhausting and it can feel like a heavy weight that you’re carrying around. If it isn’t dealt with it, guilt can eat away at your sense of self worth and it can affect your belief in yourself. But the thing about guilt is that it’s actually an opportunity to learn and grow, and I think the fact that you’re capable of feeling guilt is a good thing because it shows that you care about others, about the way that you behave and about what you put out into this world. Instead of beating yourself up over whatever did or did not happen, take accountability and choose to see it as an opportunity to grow so that you can take one more small step towards being the best version of yourself possible (and by that I mean someone who is not perfect but who is willing to grow a little each day).
The choice is yours, as it is with all things related to your wellbeing… so, what choice will YOU make today?
Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by an unknown author, and it is:
“We all feel guilty about something. The only positive thing about such feelings is that they help [us] to change and to behave better in the future.”Unknown
Alright… that’s nearly it for this week.
Next week I’ll be talking about self belief. Thinking positively about yourself and your abilities is a foundation of good mental health because it serves to improve your self worth and helps you to believe that you can achieve pretty-much anything you set your mind to. But how do you do that? How do you improve and maintain your sense of self belief? Well, that’s what I’ll be covering next time. I’ll be talking about what self belief is, why self belief matters and how to improve your self belief… because if you don’t believe in yourself, who will?!
I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Sunday the 3rd of April, 2022.
And watch my latest YouTube video on Wednesday over on my Better Mental Health channel; it’s linked in the episode description or visit letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au where you can also join my mailing list for my free weekly newsletter (and you’ll find my website linked in the episode description as well).
And find me on Instagram at @ltamentalhealth where I post extra content throughout the week.
Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time!
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Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
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Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2022 Jeremy Godwin.
The information provided in this episode is for general awareness on the topic and does not constitute advice. You should consult a doctor and/or a mental health professional if you are struggling with your mental health and wellbeing. You’ll find additional information on the Resources page of this website.