Stop Feeling Guilty – The 5 Steps Everyone Should Know
Guilt is a funny emotion. It should only be used as a barometer to gauge when you have done something to hurt another and the behaviour needs to be rectified or apologised for. A good example of this, is when you break a promise to a loved one and you have deliberately hurt that person’s feelings. The ‘guilt’ emotion was designed to provide you with empathy. This way you can evaluate your behaviours and maintain healthy relationships. However, guilt is often misused as a self-punishment mechanism or to manipulate others into doing things. Guilt becomes very debilitating – hence why there is a STRONG desire to stop feeling guilty wherever possible.
Thus, guilt is often misused in modern life. People feel guilty for EVERYTHING. Just today I was in a meeting and a colleague was saying she felt so guilty for being sick and forgetting to water her plants. Does this really warrant strong feelings of guilt? It’s a nice quality to want to ensure the livelihood of a plant. Though punishing herself and feeling like a bad person as a result of being too unwell to think to ask someone to water a plant for her, seems excessive to me. The guilt is NOT serving any purpose here, other than to make her feel bad about herself.
When you deliberately or unintentionally hurt someone, guilt should serve to provide you with remorse and to find ways to question why you engaged in this hurtful behaviour. It also serves as a way of evaluating what you can do to appease the situation and move forward. It should not be used as a way to manipulate or self punish.
Guilt is also often misused in relationships
Within a relationship, you may find yourself wracked with guilt over the most minor things. Often in private practice we see people desperately trying to find ways to stop feeling guilty, because it’s ruining their relationships.
Guilt is worthwhile if it serves to enhance, soothe or improve your relationships. However, guilt often eats at your self esteem and consequently results in unhelpful or destructive behaviours. This is particularly the case when others are placing unreasonable demands on you – playing on your propensity to feel guilty. Imagine, a partner who makes a wife feel guilty every time she puts her needs first, or when she wants to say “no” to yet ANOTHER request. The wife learns to give in just to keep the peace and stop feeling guilty, for fear she may upset her partner. In this example, usually, guilt is used as a manipulation tool in order to get what the partner wants.
So, how do you stop feeling guilty in your relationships?
Step 1: How to stop feeling guilty – Evaluate if the request in unreasonable
First of all, you need to evaluate if the request is unreasonable. We see from an early age children saying to each other “if you don’t do what I ask of you, I won’t be your friend any more”.
Already guilt is being laid on very thick from an early age! Children learn incorrectly, that saying “no”, or making someone unhappy leads to being un-liked or unloved. This very poor lesson stays with most people throughout life.
So, it’s much healthier to unlearn this childhood lesson by first asking yourself:
a) am I saying “no” because I really don’t want to do this?
b) am I saying “no” because this request clashes with another commitment?
c) am I saying “no” because I am not in the mood right now?
e) is the request fair?
Answering these questions will give you a glimpse into why you are saying “yes” in the first place.
Step 2: How to stop feeling guilty – Assess your intentions
In order to stop feeling guilty it’s important to look at your intentions. Using the example above, my colleague’s intention was not to starve her plant. Her intention at the time was to improve her health. So guilt was not appropriate. It would have been more appropriate to feel disappointment and to accept that in her ‘sick’ state she could not possibly have expected herself to remember everything.
Her intention in that moment was NOT to hurt the plant. Her intention was to get better. Therefore, she can rationalise that she did not starve her plant deliberately and next time she will remind herself to simply ask others for help.
Step 3: How to stop feeling guilty – Question the outcome
Ask yourself whether or not you have done something to hurt someone else. This is very different from asking yourself whether someone will be MAD at you for not adhering to their requests. It is important to be supportive in relationships. So there will be times when you don’t really feel like doing something, but you do it anyway, because you know it will help someone you love. Being there to support someone in need produces feel-good hormones and this further enhances your relationship. However, there needs to be reciprocal support within a relationship.
If your loved ones begin to take advantage of your kind personality and expect you to do more and more, you may begin to feel guilty every time you feel like saying “no”. This is a good example of when it is appropriate for you to think about whether or not saying “no” has hurt the other person, is has just caused a tantrum. Look at the request at hand.
Examples requests where you are likely to hurt a loved one if you say “no” or do not try to appease the situation/ find an alternative solution:
a) picking up a loved one from hospital or the airport after a long trip
b) making little attempts to be present for milestone moments (eg graduations, awards, plays, tournaments, parties)
c) not helping a loved one in times of real need
Examples of where you are likely to be bullied into saying “yes”
a) you are about to go out for dinner with close friends and your son calls to ask you to cancel everything because he doesn’t feel like being alone right now
b) your child begins to cry because she wants to eat ice cream for the 3rd time this week
c) your boss asks you to stay back at work again, knowing you have an important event to attend with your family that evening
It is really important to be able to look at what is going on behind requests and to really question whether you are going to hurt someone else for saying “no”, or whether you are going to appease a bit of bullying or neediness.
Step 4: How to stop feeling guilty – Stand up for your rights
Ask yourself, do I have a right to say “no” here? This is probably the most important question to ask yourself in order to reduce guilt. As I mentioned above, there will always be compromise in relationships, however, you have a right to say “no” to something when a request:
- does not feel right
- clashes with your values
- causes you or someone else to be hurt
- is not feasible with your current time constraints
- is unreasonable
Step 5: How to stop feeling guilty – Appeasing the hurt
You are human. There are going to be times when you snap, or misjudge things. There will be times when you have to make difficult decisions that will hurt another person. In these circumstances it is very important for the health of your relationship, to look at ways to appease the hurt. For instance, let’s say you have been asked to be a bridesmaid by your husband’s best friend’s fiancé. However, your husband has been excluded from the bridal party and is very upset about this.
In this scenario, you have two choices to make. First – say “yes” and hurt your husband further. Second – say “no” and disappoint your fiancé who is also a good friend. This is a very difficult situation. Either way someone gets hurt. Whichever selection you decide on, it’s important to explain your choice and do what you can to appease the hurt. Be gentle and kind and accept that you will not be able to please everyone.
Another example of hurt feelings could be yelling at your child when you’re tired. Instead of feeling guilty and punishing yourself about this. Learn from it, explain to your child the way you displayed your anger was not appropriate and say sorry for yelling. You can still say you had a right to be upset if that is appropriate, but appease the hurt that would come from you overreacting. This way your child learns his actions were not the best BUT he is NOT a bad person. By doing this, you separate the individual from the behaviour too.
So just to recap
The 5 Steps To Stop Feeling Guilty:
Evaluate if the request in unreasonable
Assess your intentions
Question the outcome
Stand up for your rights
Appease the hurt
By taking note of these four steps you will stop feeling guilty very quickly. You will also ensure that you protect your self esteem which is vital for the overall health and success of your relationships long term.
Lizzie O’Halloran, Author of Perfect Mum & Refresh Your Life books