Guilt is a perennial enemy that follows us wherever we go. Most often, guilt is an unavoidable emotion. We all make mistakes and then feel bad and that’s okay as it is human to err. But it is not okay when we don’t know how to move on or make amends when we make mistakes. It is not okay to let guilt rob us of our happiness. We must learn to distinguish between “good” and “bad” guilt in order to deal appropriately with our emotions. Good guilt can be constructive and often conveys an important message, whereas bad guilt makes you feel lousy about yourself, drains your energy and puts a damper on your confidence.
Before I learnt how to cope, I often felt weighed down by guilt especially when I offended someone I cared about. But I have learnt to sit and reflect when emotions of guilt hit me and ask myself whether I am dealing with “good” or “bad” guilt. I hate causing pain to people but there are times you have to make decisions that cause pain to others. It is not easy saying ‘no’ to your children, or letting go of your staff, or severing a long-term friendship, but when it has to be done, it must be done, no matter what. The important thing is learning how to cope with the guilt that may follow. I want to share with you my guilt coping mechanisms and hope you too can adopt them so you don’t live in misery. The first thing I do when guilt comes calling is to ask myself whether my guilt is warranted. “Am I truly at fault in the situation that’s troubling me?” “What evidence is there to support this?” If you are feeling guilty because of something someone said or did, you are allowing that person to control or manipulate you. Values ingrained in your upbringing could also be to blame for your guilt. For example, wanting to please everyone and therefore feeling guilty when you are unable to fulfill a request. If the values you were brought up with no longer reflect your current beliefs, you must move beyond the holdover from your past to find peace in decisions you make. However, if what’s weighing on you is warranted, it’s time to dig deeper and consider what your guilt is trying to tell you. Maybe you are unfair in your decisions. Maybe you don’t give others time to explain themselves before turning them away. Maybe you are arrogant. I always try to look at the hidden message in my guilt feelings.
If you feel guilty because you have messed up or done something to harm someone else, that is good guilt and you must accept it and learn from your actions. Good guilt also arises when you have betrayed your values or ideals. For instance, you might feel guilty because you drank more at the party than you should have done and then behaved badly, which you ought to regret and ensure it does not happen again. Or you treated the guard at the mall with disrespect and this blew off, causing you public ridicule. You may also be ashamed of the cutting remark you made about your friend’s partner because you later realised it hurt her feelings. In fact, that’s what good guilt is all about – a wake-up call to remedy a situation or change your behaviour and become a better person.
The other important thing in handling guilt is taking responsibility for your actions. If you make a mistake, own up to what you have done. It may be handling a break-up badly, making your company lose money for not doing your work, punishing your child unfairly, or even being rude to a waiter for no good reason. After taking responsibility, you must follow it with remedial action. Apologising or explaining why you did what you did can relieve guilt. Leaving the issue alone, as most people do, is not the way to go because it will continue to gnaw at you. When you take responsibility for what you did, people respect you enormously and it’s hard for them to stay mad at you. Plus, you will feel better simply because you have taken action. Identifying constructive guilt can help you clean up your behaviour and live in a way that’s more in sync with your values. You will feel a lot lighter because guilt does really weigh you down. When guilt strikes, remember you need to get out of there as soon as possible and move on. Don’t continue beating yourself because you failed to make a contribution when your colleague was raising funds for her mum’s medical bill then you went to the mall and bought yourself this expensive pair of shoes. You can still make your contribution and also enjoy your shoes. Make amends as soon as you realise what you did was not right. If your parents are complaining you don’t visit often and they are missing you, stop the guilt and take action. Call them more often so they still feel connected and make an effort to see them as often as your schedule allows. If your friends asked you to go out with them and you didn’t feel like it because you were tired, remind yourself that thinking of your own needs is not selfish. If you make a terrible mistake at work that puts your department in great trouble, don’t let the guilt drive you crazy. The best you can do is apologise and seek ways of making amends.