Sometimes guilt is appropriate: it links us to our moral compass and spurs us to right our wrongs. But too often, guilt crosses the line into inappropriate. It keeps us stuck, ruminating about the past, and, unchecked, can lead to depression. So what should you do if you feel as guilty as a teenage boy with a freshly erased browser history? In this article, I will share 7 tips for letting go of guilt.
Tip #1: Remember the flip side of guilt.
Guilt makes us feel lower than a worm’s belly. But the fact that we can feel guilt is actually a good sign. Guilt is a sign of empathy and a signal that we care about not hurting others.
In fact, at the University of British Columbia, a pair of researchers set out to determine the opposite of psychopathy—that is, being a psychopath—and found that a significant part of the answer is a tendency to feel guilt. Plus, a predisposition to guilt often goes together with honesty, cooperation, consideration, and conscientiousness—all good things that the researchers dubbed "compassionate morality."
Many years ago my patient disclosed the guilt she felt about holding her husband to his promise that they would start a family after their second year of marriage. At the two year mark he was having second thoughts. She argued he had made promise. He countered that without her income their finances would become a shamble. She insisted and he eventually relented. A year later they had their first son. When I met her their son was three years old and had undergone his sixth heart surgery. She felt guilty she had burdened her husband with a chronically ill child.
The fact that she was concerned about being a selfish wife is proof she is not… if she were she would not have had any guilt.
Tip #2: Right any outstanding wrongs.
Of course, not all guilt is an illusion. If you feel guilty about a wrong you haven’t righted, go ahead and make amends. Yes, it’s awkward to reach out. Yes, you’ll find a million reasons not to. But most likely, you’ll be glad you did. If nothing else, a heartfelt apology and offer to make things right will soothe your own conscience.
Tip #3: Challenge hindsight bias.
A lot of what the mental health world knows about guilt comes from combat veterans. War is rife with opportunities to feel guilty: guilt about killing the enemy, guilt about enjoying killing the enemy, guilt about killing or displacing civilians, guilt over surviving when others died, guilt about violating the “no man left behind” creed, guilt over feeling disconnected or alienated after coming home, and more.
But veterans’ guilt, even if the circumstances are specialized, can apply to us all: mommy guilt, Jewish guilt, Catholic guilt, liberal guilt—the list goes on. At the root of all this guilt lie four common thinking errors that are universal and often conspire to make us feel inappropriately guilty.
The first is the hindsight bias, which is a mistaken belief that the outcome was known at the time. For example, in the military, a soldier might feel guilty about shooting someone who appeared threatening but turned out to be unarmed. Another example might be not being there for a friend who subsequently revealed their depression. In any case, a surefire way to spot hindsight bias guilt is the phrase, “I should have known.” Could my patient have known her child would develop a rare heart deformity?
What to do in this situation? Think honestly about what you actually knew at the time. Differentiate between “I should have known” and “I wish I had known.” For instance, switch “I should have known my son would have a heart deformity,” to “I wish I had known, but I didn’t know and could not have known.” It’s not a copout—it’s the truth.
Tip #4: Challenge your assumptions of a lack of justification
The second thinking error is called, quite simply, lack of justification. Here, we believe there was no good reason for the course of action we took—that we should have done better. For example, a veteran may feel guilty about shooting a suspect who ignored orders not to come any closer.
When we feel guilty about an outcome, it's often because of two things. First, we believe there must have been a path to a better outcome. Second, we think we had the resources required for the ideal outcome at the time, even if we didn’t.
To challenge these errors, think about the information, skills, and resources you had at the point where you made your decision. This often leads to the realization that there was no "good" option. Our veteran’s other option was not to shoot, which might have put her entire unit at risk. My patient might have waited another five years before having children and still have the same outcome or another condition. To sum it all up, don’t hold actions of the past to the standards, skills, maturity, and wisdom of today.
Tip #5: Challenge a sense of over responsibility.
The third thinking error is a concept called over responsibility, where we believe we were solely or mostly responsible for what occurred. Classic examples are when kids blame themselves for their parents’ fighting, or rape survivors blame themselves for the assault.
To challenge this, ask yourself, “Who was acting inappropriately?” Was it the child? The assault survivor? No, of course not.
Another way to challenge over responsibility is to think of all the responsible factors. When it comes to deciding whether to have children, if we were to give it too much thought many of us would say, “forget it!” Same thing applies to guilt: when you feel solely responsible, dig a little deeper—likely there exist a host of reasons that all add up.
Tip #6: Challenge the thinking error of wrongdoing.
The fourth and final thinking error is that of wrongdoing. This is a belief that you purposely did something wrong or violated your values. For example, one of my clients felt extraordinary guilt when, during a thunderstorm, she parked her parents’ car under a tree branch that later fell and damaged the car.
To challenge the thinking error of wrongdoing, think about intent. Think about the difference between knowingly doing harm versus a bad outcome unfolding unintentionally. A military example might include switching patrols with a buddy who then was killed on that patrol. A more mundane example might be recommending a restaurant where your friend contracts food poisoning.
But often, it’s less clear cut. And sometimes, we do find intent. We feel guilty for actual wrongdoing. We actually did spread a rumor about our ex. We did throw the co-worker under the bus at the company meeting. In this case, guilt is appropriate, but among the grief-prone among us, it sometimes grows out of proportion. In this case, think about the emotions involved: anger, hurt, grief. Reflect on how much you’ve beat yourself up already. Think about whether you’d deliberately do it again.
Remember, with any of these four challenges—hindsight, lack of justification, over responsibility, and wrongdoing—the goal isn’t simply to say, “It wasn’t my fault.” Instead, ask yourself what the feeling of guilt is telling you. In the case of my patient, guilt was likely telling her how much she cares about her husband and her family. Similarly, the four challenges might help you put guilt-inducing behavior into context, feel some compassion for yourself, and move forward with your life.
Tip #7: Get older.
This is the simplest solution. Four researchers at the University of Queensland found that negative self-conscious emotion, like guilt and shame, is felt less frequently as we get older.
So if all else fails, just wait. Turns out that the travel agent in charge of your guilt trips will eventually retire.