This is the sixth in a seven-part series of articles on dealing with guilt. Please read the first five before reading this one. Written by a psychologist.
Can I make those irrational beliefs conscious and better deal with them, then? Here’s some techniques I sometimes use:
• Decide that if you must feel guilt, it will be for only five minutes. Guilt does have a purpose and if that purpose is to improve your behavior, legitimately, then yield, because you have learned something valuable. Feel the guilt. It won’t feel good, but it is instructive. This is deserved or healthy guilt. Then…
• Make amends. This is constructive behavior remedying healthy guilt. This is different from paying penance, which implies guilt but also hints that a guilt-free state of mind can be had for a price.
• Stop trying to be perfect. Nobody is perfect and don’t even try to be. Besides, imperfection is much more interesting. The world is not black and white. It is gray, and composed of wiggly, curvilinear, not straight right-angled lines. Get used to it and stop beating yourself up.
• After you’ve decided that you have suffered enough, get irritated with suffering and move on. For unhealthy guilt…
• Use an imagery scenario with "guilt" as an object you packaged in a nice box. Take it the top of a mountain and throw it off a cliff--for good.
• If you can’t do this, you still deserve to solve this problem. Value yourself, because…
• You deserve to be good to yourself. Repeat this out loud a few hundred times. (If this is a self-esteem problem, see The Four Powers of Self Esteem.)
• You deserve to have others be good to you, too!
• Develop perspective. Guilt and shame are obstacles because they keep us trapped in our self-centered melodrama entitled "How Bad I Am." They perpetuate suffering. Regret, on the other hand, realizes that we erred, leads us to purify, and motivates us to refrain from acting like that in the future. We improve while learning to feel better.
• Reflect on your motivation. An act done with a positive intention, especially without any self-interest is not necessarily negative, although other people may be harmed by it.
• Is your guilt more shame based? Think about the differences between shame and guilt.
• Think “externally” or “hyper-rationally.” Imagine a being from another planet came down to earth and reviewed your predicament from the perspective of a detached, disinterested alien. What would he think? Is it really such a big deal? Does this problem have more than one solution?
• Reframe. This is a psychological technique that allows one to look at things from the big picture, or to re-think the problem using a different perspective. Imagine that the person who did that (guilt-inducing) action no longer exists. That person is you, and you are different now. Is this person (you) who did that action five years ago the same person you are now? If s/he were exactly the same person, you would still be doing the same action. The present "you" exists in a continuum from that person but is not exactly the same as him or her. Look back at the person you were with compassion. You can understand the suffering and confusion s/he was experiencing that made her act in that way.
• Change or accept the circumstances. If you can change yourself or the situation, do so. Take charge (another form of assertiveness). If you can't change yourself or the situation for a good reason, accept it. Not acting when or where we can and could act can lead to frustration and guilt in the long run. Acting when and where we actually cannot or should not do anything can also produce guilt. Think ahead of the potential consequences when considering whether to accept what is vs. trying to do or say something to reduce guilt.
• The next-to-last antidote to guilt is forgiveness, which is the subject of the last of the three ebooks on ambivalences. Try to understand your motivations and to accept your limitations. Try to imagine another person doing the same thing you did (or didn’t do), who grew up thinking and feeling as you, thus behaving as you. You would probably “understand” such a person and have some empathy for his or her actions. Why not apply the same principles to yourself?