Overcoming guilt successfully:
I know quilt can be overcome because I overcame mine and it happened at the speed of thought!
I used to spend a good bit of my time dwelling on old failures. For instance, I would ruminate on how (as a working mom) I failed to spend enough time with my son when he was young. I would see him at soccer practice without me there. I would recall a friend asking me why I wasn’t at his practice and on, and on. I felt guilty then depressed.
I thought of myself as a “bad mom.”
Unfortunately, there was nothing I could do about those missed times with my son because they were in the past and the past was done and gone. Yet, my focus on these painful memories clouded out the memories of all the good times we had together as well as the health producing positive feelings that accompany them.
Fortunately, I learned how my thinking was perpetuating this heavy, sad, and helpless burden of guilt. Allow me to explain.
First, it’s important to understand the difference between remorse and guilt. Remorse comes from the awareness that you have done something that you consider wrong. It differs from guilt in that it is aimed at behavior and can be used as a motivator to help you change that behavior to better reach your goals in life.
Guilt on the other hand, targets the self. Rather than focusing on a behavior you can change it focuses on your self-worth. The sense of the “badness” of self is central guilt. It fosters depression, shame, or anxiety. Guilt degrades self-esteem and blinds living in the here and now. It’s often out of proportion to the transgression and persists far beyond the time you could use it to make a helpful change.
Second, it is human to make mistakes, everyone does. It is through learning from mistakes that you know better what is needed to improve your life. Learning from errors and mistakes is a fundamental process of growth and life itself.
Third, guilt results from distorted thinking that is based on faulty assumptions, beliefs, attitudes, and thoughts like these:
- All or-Nothing Thinking
- Mental Filters
- Discounting the Positive
- Jumping to Conclusions
- Magnification or Minimization
- Emotional Reasoning
- Should Statements
- Personalization and Blame
These well-researched10 cognitive distortions developed by cognitive therapist, David D. Burns M.D. act as mind traps that keep you stuck in unhealthy patterns of living. For more on these mind traps see “Cognitive Distortions Create Mind Traps.”
There’s a science to how to challenge these faulty ways of thinking (also developed by Burns). It involves three steps:
- Become aware of your self-critical thoughts (keep track of them and write them down).
- Learn why they are distorted (which cognitive distortions fuel them).
- Talk back to them to develop a more realistic and useful self-evaluation system.
Overcoming Guilt Key Points
- You do not have to live with guilt, you can overcome it.
- Guilt is different from remorse in that it is directed at the self and does not promote healthy change.
- Research shows that guilt is based on faulty thinking patterns called cognitive distortions.
- You can use the three steps above to develop a more accurate and healthy self-evaluation system that will help you overcome guilt.
Overcoming Guilt Sources and Resources
Burns, David, D., Feeling Good, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers,1980).