Letting go of guilt – a practice guide

Guilt comes from things we have done wrong (sometimes triggered by someone else who thinks we did wrong). In some cases we feel guilt as a punishment we feel like we for some reason deserve. Guilt often shows up as “I did wrong” and its sister, shame, more often as “I am wrong”. They both serve the function of adjusting our behavior so we get along with the social group – we do something “wrong”, we repair, and then we can go along with our business again.

Here are a few steps towards reparation between you/you and/or you/someone else, that might come in handy if you are feeling overwhelming guilt.

  1. Take responsibility – acknowledge your part in what happened. You did what you did, so what are you going to do about it? Taking responsibility can look like this: “I realize what I did was not very skillful, I’m sorry for the pain I inflicted on you”. Then not taking responsibility could look like obviously not doing anything or going on about “feeling awful” but not really doing anything about it.

  2. Don’t hang on to anger – don’t be fast pushing your uncomfortable feelings onto someone else (with blame for instance – “if he hadn’t… then!”). Feel what you feel deeply. Take help of a notepad and write everything down if you need to. Then decide if there might be some boundaries you need to put up, for yourself or perhaps someone else (for instance, “I will truly look into my stress issues so I don’t yell so often at my children”). Remember, even if wrongdoings are made towards us we cannot control what the other should or shouldn’t do – but we can help ourselves with what we do with it.

    One could also hang onto anger towards oneself for punishment – beating yourself up internally – you will hopefully notice that this is the case if the guilty feelings don’t lessen after taking responsibility and making the effort to repair. Then you can ask yourself: what is this need of constantly punishing myself? How does it serve me? How does it limit me?

  3. Be compassionate to all parts – be compassionate towards yourself. You did the best you could in that moment, even if you are capable of something else under different circumstances. The same goes for the other person.

  4. Let it go – return to the present moment. Every moment you spend ruminating your guilt, you live less here and now, and precious moments where you can repair between you and you and/or you and someone else are slipping away.

  5. Keep showing up – dare to show up time after time. This is your life, you have all the right to exist in it. Going through uncomfortable feelings – feeling them, learning how and when they show up, and what we decide to do about them – is how we learn and grow. 

In summary:

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