Why do we feel guilty?
There are many varying reasons why a person could have feelings of guilt. And these feelings could be due to an event, situation or person.
Some people, for example, have “survivor guilt.” This is when a person who survived an event feels guilty about his/her survival when others did not. For example, let’s say you were in a road accident where friends or family did not survive, but you survived. So you start to feel guilty that you survived, but the others you were with did not.
A person may also feel guilty about something they did that they consider to be morally wrong. For example, you did something illegal and you start to feel guilty about it. This type of guilt is usually accompanied by shame. So instead of you coming clean about what you did, you try to conceal it because of the shame aspect of it. Some people would rather live with a constant feeling of guilt than admit their mistakes. This is because of the shame and humiliation the truth may cause them.
Some people might feel guilty about a behavior or a particular thing they do. But in such a case, the person can stop doing it. Other people feel guilty about their flaws. Others may feel guilty for not doing something or anything when the situation called for it. For example, not standing up for a friend or defending a friend when they needed you to.
Others feel guilty about doing something they know they shouldn’t have like when a spouse cheats. So there are many reasons that cause feelings of guilt.
In summary, feeling guilty about something involves:
- Focusing on past actions or deeds
- Recognizing that the effects of the past actions are not changeable.
- Estrangement with people you have done wrong
- Expecting punishment.
How guilt can affect your health
According to Dr. Mehmet OZ, who is a cardiothoracic surgeon at the New York Presbyterian-Columbia Medical Center, “Guilt can shorten your life. It weakens your immune system. Guilt also has been shown to increase cortisol levels. Cortisol is a stress hormone that your body makes as part of its “fight or flight” response. It is designed to mobilize our energy stores and activating systems, which may be necessary to fight off a potential threat. However, constant exposure can increase blood pressure and your risk of heart disease, diabetes, depression, and anxiety disorders.”
Studies show that negative emotions and thoughts can elevate the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones help trigger your body to respond when you encounter a threat or a stressful event. The problem is when high levels of these hormones last too long, you start to become restless and irritable. You may also start to experience high blood pressure, rapid heart rate, stress ulcer in your stomach and even inflammation all over your body.
Other studies show that feeling guilty can affect your mental health and well-being. How guilt affects your mind has to do with your thoughts.
Research shows that feeling guilty increases negative thinking. This becomes worse if an individual is already suffering from depression. When a person is in a depressive state and also battling with feelings of guilt this leads to negative cognition. This is when an individual feels and tells themselves that they are worthless, they are not good enough or they are not loved.
Generally, the person starts to have a negative opinion about themselves. They start to have low self-esteem issues. As a result, they become more depressed and as studies indicate this can lead to self-harm.
Tips to stop feeling guilty
When you start having feelings of guilt sometimes you may not even know why you are feeling guilty. And so you find you are asking yourself questions such as why I do I feel guilty?
In other cases, the reasons why you are feeling guilty are pretty clear, but you don’t know how to deal with the feelings.
So here are a few tips to help you stop feeling guilty.
- Accept what has happened.
Life is short and in any case, you cannot turn back time. If your reason for feeling guilty is attributed to some past transgression or event.
For instance, if you are suffering from survivor’s guilt, you need to start accepting what happened and know that nothing you can do can change that fact.
- Change your perspective.
Accept and recognize that you cannot change what has happened. This way, you’ll be able to resolve your thoughts and emotions.
- Apologize if necessary.
When you wrong someone, sometimes you can find it hard to apologize, mainly because you feel ashamed at what you did to them. This is quite natural and very common.
But do not allow yourself to wallow in guilt. If you feel that you can fix the problem by apologizing then, by all means, apologize. You may not get the results that you want, but the person you wronged will see you are trying to make an effort to fix your mistake. And that can go a long way.
- Understand where you are now and what has changed.
If you are feeling guilty about something and you know what it is that is making you feel guilty.
First, recognize that you cannot do anything to change what has happened.
Secondly, understand where you are at present and what has changed. For example, some murders when they get caught, they show remorse for their actions. Meaning that they feel guilty for what they did. But if they are already in jail having been found guilty, they cannot change that fact and not even being remorseful can buy them their freedom.
So maybe you wronged a friend who despite apologizing to decides that they won’t keep your friendship. Reconcile yourself to the fact that the friendship is over. But above all forgive yourself and give yourself another chance.
- Think about what would you do differently now.
What were you doing before that was making you feel guilty and what can you do differently to make you feel less guilty?
For example, you feel guilty for not helping out with house chores. So how do you stop feeling guilty? Simple, help out with the house chores. If you feel guilty for something you do, then stop doing it. For example, if you have a habit of buying expensive lattes and this makes you feel guilty, then stop buying them. It is very simple. If something you are doing causes you to feel guilty, then stop doing it.
- Reflect the lessons you've learned.
If your past transgressions have caused pain or harm to another person. Think about how your actions have harmed that person. Let’s say you stole something from a friend and despite coming clean about your actions, your friend decides that they no longer want you in their life. The lesson to learn here is that stealing from friends can cost you good friendships.
Another good example is when a partner cheats. If cheating becomes the reason your relationship or marriage ends, this in itself should be a lesson. Chances are that next time you will not do it because of the consequences. So reflecting on the lessons you have learned can help you do things differently.
- Get help if you can't cope on your own.
Overcoming negative thoughts and emotions needs a lot of willpower and support. Without the support of friends and family, it can be difficult to cope with feelings of guilt, shame, anxiety and any other negative emotions. So if you find that you are struggling to cope with feelings of guilt, talk to someone. It can be a close friend, relative or a professional.
- Do something good.
Doing something good can help you stop feeling guilty. This can be something like helping out in the community or volunteering for a “just” cause. But don’t do something good so that people can see you as a good person because all you’ll be doing is keeping up appearances.
- Do something for yourself.
Something that makes you feel good inside. Something that will replace those guilty feelings with good and positive feelings.
- Learn something new.
Do something new or try something you have never tried before. Focus your mind on something else other than your feelings of guilt. Create goals and try to achieve them. Refocus your thoughts on something positive. Something that will grow you in a positive way. So instead of dwelling on what is making you feel guilty, focus on achieving your goals.
- Celebrate your small victories.
Be proud of every small achievement you make. Even apologizing for a wrong you have done to someone else is an achievement in itself. Commend yourself for being brave enough to apologize despite the shame.
- Turn guilt into gratitude.
You may perceive guilt as a negative emotion which breeds other negative emotions. But did you know you can turn guilt into gratitude? Studies show that guilt can keep you on the straight and narrow. It can make you do things that are morally right. Guilt can make you honest. So whenever you are feeling guilty, try to look at it in a positive way. Learn to appreciate that guilt because it will help you behave better.
- Don't be too hard on yourself.
Do not self-sabotage yourself by having a low opinion of yourself because of a mistake. You are not perfect, and no one is perfect. Understand that you are human and we all make mistakes. Do not burden yourself with feelings of guilt over something you cannot change or undo. This can only affect your physical and mental health. Instead, be good to yourself. Practice self-compassion and tell yourself that you are good enough.
- Grow your self-esteem.
Guilt is associated with shame and shame leads to low self-esteem. So by learning to forgive yourself, you overcome the guilt and subsequently the shame. It is easy to look down on yourself and think that you are a worthless human being. But in reality, these are just negative thoughts driven by feelings of guilt. But once you stop feeling guilty, you are able to grow your self-esteem. Self-esteem and self-compassion should go hand in hand. If you want to start feeling good about yourself show yourself compassion. This will increase your self-worth and subsequently, your self-esteem.
- Seek professional help.
If you have tried everything you can to stop feeling guilty with no success, seek professional help. More so if the guilt is affecting your everyday life and making you feel depressed. Don’t let guilt take over you. Fight back with everything that you’ve got and love yourself enough to know when to get help.
We hope that you find these tips helpful as you fight to overcome your feelings of guilt.
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