Steps to Overcome Guilt and Forgive Yourself

Darlene Lancer LMFT

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We’ve all done things we regret, but some of us ruminate and continue to punish ourselves with guilt. A little guilt is good. Yes! Guilt actually encourages people to have more empathy for others, to take corrective action, and to improve themselves. Self-forgiveness following guilt is essential to maintain self-esteem, which is key to enjoyment of life and relationships. But when we can’t let go, self-acceptance remains elusive because of unhealthy guilt — sometimes for days, months, years, or even a lifetime.

Guilt may be an unrelenting source of pain. You might hold a belief that you should feel guilty and condemn yourself — not once, but over and over — or guilt may simmer in your unconscious. Either way, this kind of guilt is insidious and self-destructive and can sabotage your goals. Guilt causes anger and resentment, not only at yourself, but toward others in order to justify your actions. Anger, resentment, and guilt sap your energy, cause depression and illness, and stop you from having success, pleasure, and fulfilling relationships. It keeps you stuck in the past and prevents you from moving forward.

Irrational Guilt

You may feel guilty not only for your actions, but also thoughts: For instance, wishing someone pain, misfortune, or even death; or for feelings, like anger, lust, or greed; or lack of feelings, such as not reciprocating love or friendship, or not feeling grief over the loss of someone close. Although irrational, you might feel guilty for the thoughts, attributes, feelings, and actions of someone else. It’s not unusual for people to feel guilty for leaving their faith or not meeting the expectations of their parents.

People often judge themselves based on the blame or false accusations emanating from others, which they believe to be true. For example, a woman projects her own self-centeredness onto her husband and accuses him of being selfish. He believes it, not realizing it is she who is selfish (attribute). She might find ways to blame her insecurity (feeling) on him, claiming he’s flirting, uncaring, or indifferent. A man might blame his anger (feeling), or mistake (action) on his partner, and she believes him and feels guilty.

It’s common to take the blame for others’ behavior when we have poor boundaries or low self-esteem. A spouse might accept her husband’s blame and feel guilty for his drinking or addiction. Victims of abuse or sexual assault frequently feel guilt and shame, despite the fact that they were victims and it’s the perpetrator that is culpable. When it comes to divorce, those initiating it often feel guilty, even though responsibility for their marital problem is shared or was primarily due to their partner.

Shame Distinguished

Guilt should be distinguished from shame, where you feel inferior, inadequate, or bad about who you are versus what you did. When irrational and not absolved, guilt can lead to shame. Shame isn’t constructive. Instead of enhancing empathy and self-improvement, it has the opposite effect. You feel irredeemable. It leads to greater self-preoccupation and undermines both the self and relationships.

How to Forgive Yourself

If you already have low self-esteem or have issues around shame (most people do), it may be difficult to concentrate on what it is you feel guilty about. However, this is necessary in order to get past it. Rationalizing or brushing it under the rug to avoid self-examination may help temporarily, but not achieve self-forgiveness. Alternatively, beating yourself up prolongs guilt and shame and damages your self-esteem; while accepting responsibility and taking remedial action improves it.

Here are suggested steps you can take. I refer to actions, but they apply equally to thoughts or feelings you feel guilty about:

1. If you’ve been rationalizing your actions, take responsibility. “Okay, I did (or said) it.”

2. Write a story about what happened, including how you felt about yourself and others involved before, during, and after.

3. Analyze what were your needs at that time, and whether they were being met. If not, why not?

4. What were your motives? What or who was the catalyst for your behavior? Does the catalyst remind you of something from your past?

5. Evaluate the values, beliefs, and standards by which you’re judging yourself. Are they yours, your parents’, your friends’, your spouse’s, or those of your faith? Do you need their approval? It’s pointless to try to live up to someone else’s expectations. Others’ desires and values have more to do with them. They may never approve, or you may sacrifice yourself and your happiness seeking approval. Decide which values you agree with.

6. Did your actions reflect your true values? If not, trace your beliefs, thoughts, and emotions that led to your actions. Think about what may have led you to abandon your values. Notice that you hurt yourself when you violate your values. This actually causes more harm than disappointing someone else.

7. How did your actions affect you and others? Whom did you hurt? Include yourself on the list.

8. Think of ways to make amends? Take action, and make them. For example, if the person is dead, you can write a letter of apology. You can also decide to act differently in the future.

9. Do you expect perfection? Has this improved your overall well-being? Perfection is illusory and a manifestation of underlying shame.

10. Would you forgive someone else for the same actions? Why would you treat yourself differently? How does it benefit you to continue to punish yourself?

11. Remorse is healthy and leads to corrective action. Think about what you’ve learned from your experience and how you might act differently in today.

12. Write yourself an empathic letter of understanding, appreciation, and forgiveness.

13. Self-talk is powerful. Beware if yours is negative. Repeat daily words of kindness and forgiveness from your letter, such as, “I’m innocent,” “I forgive myself,” and “I love myself.”

14. Share honestly with others what you did. Don’t share with those who might judge you. If appropriate, talk about what happened in a 12-Step group. Secrecy prolongs guilt and shame.

Realize that you can forgive yourself and still believe you were at fault, just as you might forgive someone else even though you think the person was in the wrong. You can regret what you did, yet accept that you’re human and make mistakes. Perhaps, you did your best, given your circumstances, awareness, maturity, and experience at the time. This is a healthy, humble attitude.

If you continue to have difficulties with self-forgiveness, I recommend my Self-Love Meditation and ebook, Freedom from Guilt and Blame — Finding Self-Forgiveness. If you’re suffering from shame, which predisposes you to self-loathing and feeling bad about yourself, it’s helpful to see a counselor. See also my blogs on self-nurturing and self-love and my ebook, 10 Steps to Self-Esteem to build your self-esteem.

Louw, D. J. (1996). Guilt and change–the healing power of forgiveness. Scriptura: Journal for Biblical, Theological and Contextual Hermeneutics, 59, 383-395.

Miller, C., & Loring, P. (2015). The healing power of guilt. In Techniques of Grief Therapy (pp. 157-160). Routledge.
 ©Darlene Lancer 2013

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Darlene Lancer is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and expert author on relationships, narcissism, and codependency. She’s counseled individuals and couples for over 30 years and coaches internationally. Her books include "Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You," "Dating, Loving, and Leaving a Narcissist - Essential Tools for Improving or Leaving Narcissistic and Abusive Relationships," and "Codependency for Dummies," plus seven ebooks, webinars, and other resource materials. Her books are available on Amazon, other online booksellers and her website, www.whatiscodependency.com, where you can get a free copy of “14 Tips for Letting Go.”

Los Angeles, CA
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