Imagine how tiring it would be to carry a disapproving parent, partner or boss on your back all the time. If you frequently experience feelings of guilt, you know that it can be downright exhausting.
One of the most interesting things about guilt is how I hear people describe it. People are often quick to point the finger to an external source when they refer to guilt, saying that someone in their life “makes them feel guilty.”
The truth is: emotions are not put upon you. Your father can tell you he wishes you could visit more than once a week; your daughter can tell you that you’re the worst mom on the planet for not baking for the school bake sale; your boss can shoot you a disapproving look when you make an uninformed comment at a division meeting. Still, how you feel is up to you. You drive your own thoughts and moods.
5 Strategies to Overcome Guilt
Guilt can be a pesky feeling, with an emotional hold that often lasts beyond the circumstances or remark associated with it. Whether your guilt stems from perceptions of how others are judging your actions, or from your own assessments, the following strategies can help free you from its grip.
Differentiate between empathy and guilt — There is a fine line between understanding how someone might feel in a certain situation and taking responsibility for those feelings. Don’t cross that line. While you always want to be respectful, you are not responsible for managing other people’s feelings.
Let go of perfectionism — Research has established a link between perfectionism and situational guilt. That comes as little surprise. If your measure of “perfect” is based on being all things to all people at all times, you will fall short. Evaluate whether your own standards are realistic. Can you ease up on any self-imposed pressures?
Recognize triggers — While it’s up to you to take responsibility for your own thoughts, moods and behaviors, we are all products of our past. Dynamics that were established in childhood, or in previous relationships, can impact the way you hear something that your partner says to you today. If you were unfairly blamed for something as a child, you might be inclined to feel guilty whenever your partner complains about something, even if you’ve done nothing wrong. Developing an awareness of your triggers can help you manage them.
Do a reality check — Before beating yourself up, thinking of all the ways you’ve let others down, stop. Do a reality check. Accept the fact that, on certain days, there will be people in your life, whether overly demanding bosses or overtired children, for whom your efforts simply aren’t good enough. Remind yourself that you’re not falling short; rather, their expectations may not be reasonable. Find a reassuring mantra, like “I’m doing the best I can,” and repeat it over and over in your head until a sense of calm replaces the guilt.
Related: Stop Blaming Yourself — and Others
Identify healthy versus unhealthy guilt — Healthy guilt is a valuable learning tool. It can serve as an emotional red flag that a thought or behavior is out of alignment with your values, giving you an opportunity to steer yourself back on course. Unhealthy guilt, on the other hand, is much more complicated. If left unchecked, unhealthy guilt can take a toll on self-esteem, getting in the way of building strong relationships and achieving personal and professional goals.