How to Overcome Guilt and Forgive Yourself

guiltGuilt is good. Yes! Guilt actually encourages people to have more empathy for others, to take corrective action, and to improve themselves. Self-forgiveness following guilt is self-essential to esteem, which is key to enjoyment of life and relationships. Yet, for many, self-acceptance remains elusive because of unhealthy guilt – sometimes for decades or a lifetime.

Guilt may be an unrelenting source of pain. You might hold a belief that you should feel guilty and condemn yourself – not once, but over and over – or guilt may simmer in your unconscious. Either way, this kind of guilt is insidious and self-destructive and can sabotage your goals. Guilt causes anger and resentment, not only at yourself, but toward other in order to justify your actions. Anger, resentment, and guilt sap your energy, cause depression and illness, and stop you from having success, pleasure, and fulfilling relationships. It keeps you stuck in the past and prevents you from moving forward.

You may feel guilty not only for your actions, but also thoughts: For instance, wishing someone pain, misfortune, or even death; or for feelings, like anger, lust, or greed; or lack of feelings, such as not reciprocating love or friendship, or not feeling grief over the loss of someone close. Although irrational, you might feel guilty for the thoughts, attributes, feelings, and actions of someone else. It’s not unusual for people to feel guilty for leaving their faith or not meeting the expectations of their parents. People often judge themselves based upon the blame or false accusations emanating from others, which they believe to be true. For example, a woman projects her self-centeredness onto her husband and accuses him of being selfish. He believes it, not realizing it is she who is selfish (attribute). She might blame her insecurity (feeling) on him, claiming he’s flirting, uncaring, or indifferent. A man might blame his anger (feeling), or mistake (action) on his partner, and she believes him and feels guilty.

It’s common for codependents to take the blame for others’ behavior, because of their low self-esteem. A spouse might accept her husband’s blame and feel guilty for his drinking or addiction. Victims of abuse or sexual assault frequently feel guilt and shame, despite the fact that they were victims and it’s the perpetrator that is culpable. When it comes to divorce, those initiating it often feel guilty, even though responsibility for their marital problem is shared or was primarily due to their partner.

Guilt should be distinguished from shame, where you feel inferior, inadequate, or bad about who you’re verses what you did. When irrational and not absolved, guilt can lead to shame. Shame isn’t constructive. Instead of enhancing empathy and self-improvement, it has the opposite effect. It leads to greater self-preoccupation and undermines both the self and relationships.

If you already have low self-esteem or have issues around shame (most people do), it may be difficult to concentrate on what it is you feel guilty about. However, this is necessary in order to get past it. Rationalizing or brushing it under the rug to avoid self-examination may help temporarily, but not achieve self-forgiveness. Alternatively, beating yourself up prolongs guilt and shame and damages your self-esteem; while, accepting responsibility and taking remedial action improves it. Here are suggested steps you can take. I refer to actions, but they apply equally to thoughts or feelings you feel guilty about:

1. If you’ve been rationalizing your actions, take responsibility. “Okay, I did (or said) it.”

2. Write a story about what happened, including how you felt about yourself and others involved before, during, and after.

3. Analyze what were your needs at that time, and were they being met. If not, why not?

4. What were your motives? What or who was the catalyst for your behavior?

5. Does the catalyst remind you of something from your past? Write a story about it, and include dialogue and your feelings.

6. How were your feelings and mistakes handled growing up? Were they forgiven, judged, or punished? Who was hard on you? Were you made to feel ashamed?

7. Evaluate the standards by which you’re judging yourself. Are they your values, your parents’, your friends’, your spouse’s, or those of your faith? Do you need their approval? It’s pointless to try to live up to someone else’s expectations. Others’ desires and values have more to do with them. They may never approve, or you may sacrifice yourself and your happiness seeking approval.

8. Identify the values and beliefs that in fact governed you during the event? For example, “Adultery is okay if my spouse never finds out.” Be honest, and decide which values you agree with.

9. Did your actions reflect your true values? If not, trace your beliefs, thoughts, and emotions that led to your actions. Think about what may have led you to abandon your values? Notice that you hurt yourself when you violate your values. This actually causes more harm than disappointing someone else.

10. How did your actions affect you and others? Whom did you hurt? Include yourself on the list.

11. Think of ways to make amends? Take action, and make them. For example, if the person is dead, you can write a letter of apology. You can also decide to act differently in the future.

12. Looking back, what healthier beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and actions would have led to a more desirable result?

13. Do you expect perfection? Has this improved your overall well-being? Perfection is illusory and a manifestation of underlying shame.

14. Would you forgive someone else for the same actions? Why would you treat yourself differently? How does it benefit you to continue to punish yourself?

15. Remorse is healthy and leads to corrective action. Think about what you’ve learned from your experience and how you might act differently in today.

16. Write yourself an empathic letter of understanding, appreciation, and forgiveness.

17. Repeat on a daily basis words of kindness and forgiveness from your letter, such as, “I’m innocent,” “I forgive myself,” and “I love myself.”

18. Share honestly with others what you did. Don’t share with those who might judge you. If appropriate, talk about what happened in a 12-Step group. Secrecy prolongs guilt and shame.

Realize that you can forgive yourself and still believe you were at fault, just as you might forgive someone else even though you think the person was in the wrong. You can regret what you did, yet accept that you’re human and make mistakes. Perhaps, you did your best, given your circumstances, awareness, maturity, and experience at the time. This is a healthy, humble attitude.

If you continue to have difficulties with self-forgiveness, it’s helpful to see a counselor. You may be suffering from shame, which predisposes you to self-loathing, guilt, and feeling bad about yourself. This can be healed in therapy. See also my blogs on self-nurturing and self-love. Get my ebook, 10 Steps to Self Esteem to build your self-esteem.
©Darlene Lancer 2013

16 thoughts on “How to Overcome Guilt and Forgive Yourself

  1. Recently I had been in a relationship with a guy I had met over facebook. We used to chat continuously and I was interested in taking it forward though he appeared a bit reluctant. The reason he said was his financial instability. He insisted on meeting personally at his place as he said he cannot be away from there due to business commitements. Though I was reluctant to go initially, later I felt our relation falling apart and badly wanted to mend it. Moreover he used to say he wants to discuss some of his perosnal issues when we meet. Finally I silenced my insecurities and went to meet him. But when he met he was not willing to share his issues. He said he is not comfortable with me asking about it intermittently and will share it some time later. Though I could not buy in his blame of me pestering him with questions I decided to give him the space and time he needs. But inspite of this we were physically intimate and I was kind of forced to be half nude, which I was not atball comfortable with; but agreed to him out of fear of being blamed for not trusting him or considering his feelings. Also we had an argument reagrding his over indulgence in phone when we were together and again i was blamed for not being bold enough when I tried to let him know of my insecurities. But syill he was talking about a future together till i was back.Quite contrary to my expectations when I came back from his place he started keeping distance and literalky stopped responding to my messages. When I insisted he said he is into some personal issues and need some time. I tried to keep myself away but within one week I was down with depression. Now I am doing good but with the help of antidepressants. Two weeks back I tried to talk to him and again I was blamed for being a pain in his neck and a burden as he is troubled with hell lot of other issues. I found that veryboffensive and said goodbye. Two days later he messaged saying his busineess venture got started on that week. I just wished him best. We are not in touch for last two weeks. I do not see any future for this relation. But I just can’t stop tjinking about him and what went wrong. Mostly I am unable to get rid of the guilt that I got physically intimate with him and trusted him so much. I would really like to get out of these spiralling thoughts, accept the relqity and move on. Please help

    • What you describe is twice acting because you were afraid of being blamed, which is afraid of shame. Shame anxiety controls codependents to a large degree. Reading my book, Conquering Shame will help you have compassion for yourself and change your behavior in the future. I also have a blog post on Trust that might help you with issues around trusting untrustworthy people. Sounds like he’s very manipulative, which I will address in my next blog in August.

  2. Recently I had been in a relationship with a guy I had met over facebook. We used to chat continuously and I was interested in taking it forward though he appeared a bit reluctant. The reason he said was his financial instability. He insisted on meeting personally at his place as he said he cannot be away from there due to business commitements. Though I was reluctant to go initially, later I felt our relation falling apart and badly wanted to mend it. Moreover he used to say he wants to discuss some of his perosnal issues when we meet. Finally I silenced my insecurities and went to meet him. But when he met he was not willing to share his issues. He said he is not comfortable with me asking about it intermittently and will share it some time later. Though I could not buy in his blame of me pestering him with questions I decided to give him the space and time he needs. But inspite of this we were physically intimate and I was kind of forced to be half nude, which I was not atball comfortable with; but agreed to him out of fear of being nlamed

  3. I used to spend a lot of time going to clubs. I don’t drive so I always took public transit or got a ride from somebody. On two occasions, however, I got a ride from women who had been drinking at the club. They drove cautiously and nothing happened. The second time, however, the woman’s best friend (who wasn’t there) berated me for letting her friend drive. I was a bit tipsy but I still felt uneasy getting into the car on both occasions. I even tried to convince the women to wait or eat before driving or leave the car there, but both times they convinced me or I let myself hope that they could drive. I feel guilty because we could have been killed or killed or hurt somebody. I think of all the things I should have done differently and I feel awful for not having been more assertive. In fact, that is something I lack, assertiveness. Nowadays, I try to avoid being in situations like that and avoid heavy drinkers and leave the club early, but I can’t get rid of the guilt.

  4. I was with my husband for 7 years and he was my only boyfriend and my first love and we got married and had 2 children, he cheated on me and we ended up separating, and then got back together and then he cheated on me again…. Then we got back together and we just recently got back together but things just arent the same I cant sleep with him or anything and I ended up cheating, and I feel guilty about it but I am so hurt and just beyond myself and dont know how to not feel guilty about it, any tips

    • His betrayal must have been so heartbreaking. Ask yourself why his feelings are more important than your own, how and why did you convince yourself you could trust him again, and what did you do with your anger toward him.

      • ya i just kind of brush him off I leave a lot and do things with the kids by myself try to keep him out of the loop, and there are times I can talk to him and other times where I just snap at him and it is because I really feel sort of trapped… He always twists things to make them my fault and I feel like i did wrong but at the same time i dont… i just want to be happy again and dont know where to start…

  5. Hi, After 40 years of self-imposed guilt, I’m trying to sort it out and figure out how to let it go. I’ve blamed myself for the death of my father and his best friend who died in a plane crash after leaving my HS Baccalaureate. I’ve often wondered if I had delayed them would it have changed, and felt that if they hadn’t come to see me graduate it wouldn’t have happened. It’s “my” fault. There is a lot of story behind this. I don’t know how to let this go. I can’t afford therapy but somehow this needs to end. I’ll try to get your book so I can see if that helps in any way. I really do thank you for giving me a bit of info to help me sort thru this. I think maybe I need to forgive myself for sending them invitations.

    Thanks,
    Cheryl

    • It’s very sad that you would do this to yourself, rather than gratitude to be able to cherish the happy occasion that you both shared together before your father died, which would come with acceptance. There’s an element of anger in guilt. If you can allow yourself to fully feel angry that they died, you might stop turning that anger on yourself. It may result in more sadness and grief, but that’s normal, and can lead to acceptance. Grief includes various stages that include anger and often guilt. What you’re experiencing is part of “bargaining,” thinking “if only I hadn’t” could change the past. We can’t change the past, we can only accept it, and move forward. (I describe the stages in Ch. 13 of my Dummies book).

      Healthy guilt needn’t be rational, but from a purely logical standpoint, no reasonable connection exists that would make you responsible. There were so many independent intervening forces between your invite and his death – his decision to come, weather, his choice of airline and time of day, engineering and pilot errors, where he sat on the plane, etc. Your guilt is purely irrational, and often irrational guilt is based on shame.

      • Hi Darlene,

        There is so much more to this story than what appears. Our relationship wasn’t a good one before he died. He was the pilot in his own personal plane. I know my guilt is irrational but I don’t quite see where shame fits into the picture. I did finally talk to the widow of the other adult in the plane, my dad’s best friend. She said she has never blamed me. It has taken me 40 years to be able to talk to her. I now almost wonder if it’s been so long ingrained in me that I can’t let it go. Does that even make sense?

        No, I’ve not gotten your book yet. I’m disabled and getting out to go shop isn’t that easy for me. I must make an effort to do that or see if I can get it online. I’ve meant to respond several times, but I just forget. I’m sorry. I guess I don’t want to find myself in tears again over this as I am right now.

        Thanks,
        Cheryl

        • I hope practicing the tips in this blog will help you. When we have irrational guilt, it’s often the manifestation of underlying shame that we don’t feel good about ourselves – maybe not about the current incident, but from our childhood, so it sets us up to feel guilty easily and irrationally. Losing someone when you’re not on good terms complicates the grieving process and could be contributing to your guilt. Psychotherapy or coaching can help with that. Also, when we feeling responsible for someone else’s actions, that’s a sign of codependency, and shame underlies that, too. You can find my books on shame and codependency in PDF, Kindle or other electronic format online. They’re cheaper than the paperback. The exercises should help you.

  6. Hi, I just realized that I am co dependent. My boyfriend broke up with me because I basically pushed him away and we do not speak anymore. I feel guilty for acting the way I did and sometimes I find myself constantly thinking about him and I don’t know why. My ex is an addict and no good for me. Ive been reading your book and I’m learning alot about myself. I guess my question is, is my constant thinking about him is that just part of me being co-dependent? I’m just very confused. Thanks

    • Yes, obsession is one of the symptoms, but more than that, being involved with an addict isn’t good for your self-esteem. The addiction comes first, so you’ve been in a relationship where your needs and feelings weren’t valued, and yet you want more of it. That’s the real problem. He did you a favor by breaking up. If he’s blaming you, that’s just what addict’s do. Go to Al-Anon or Nar-Anon and work on loving yourself, and follow all the suggestions in my blog. Good luck on your journey of reclaiming yourself!

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