How to Free Yourself from Guilt
This article was originally published on December 20, 2007, around the time this blog was born. Sometimes, older articles get buried and lost in the archives, but their advice is still applicable today. As I transition into a full-time mom again, I recently experienced some guilt (more on that in a new post soon) and this articled helped to ground me with its gentle reminders to "Let go of the pain. It's all an illusion. Set yourself free. Everything will be okay." Enjoy the article!
Have you recently felt guilty for something you didn’t do?
Perhaps, feeling guilty for not replying to emails? Guilty for not reaching all your goals for the day? Guilty for having spent hours browsing the web aimlessly and not having enough time to do something important? Guilty for telling someone you’d call, but never returning the call? Do you beat yourself up for it?
I’m definitely guilty of having felt guilty. :) I’m also guilty for the self-inflicted mental beating I give myself, afterwards.
Thoughts like these have the power to bring you down. They carry an energy that weighs down on your mind, because part of you is constantly thinking about it. The guilt begins popping up in everything you do. Do you get random tightness feeling in your stomach? A sort of nervousness that you just can’t seem to shake off?
I’ve experienced a great amount of guilt over the past few weeks. Since the birth of this blog, I’ve fallen in love with working on the blog. For all the joy it has brought me, it has taken a tremendous amount of dedication and time. Since I was not prepared for the commitment for blog, I have been neglecting my other commitments and activities. My neglect has been manifesting in feelings of guilt.
The experience of guilt is also a great gift. It gave me the opportunity and willingness to look deeper into this ‘man-made’ emotion. I wanted to share with you my realizations and a simple six step technique I’ve used to help myself overcome this unpleasant feeling.
Realizations about Guilt
Here are some things I’ve observed and realized about the emotion of Guilt:
1. Self Inflicted
All guilt is self-inflicted and created by the mind. It is a feeling that we choose to experience. The feeling is rooted in our ego; a fear of not being accepted by the peers in our social group.
2. Open Issues
Guilt is often caused by open issues that were not addressed. I discovered that if I had a plan for solving the issue, then the feeling would be either relieved or reduced.
3. Feeling of Debt
Often times, we feel guilty because we feel like we owe something to someone, like a debt. Whether it’s social debt, monetary debt, or unfulfilled responsibilities.
One example is not calling a friend after you promised you would do so. Or feeling like you owe a favor to a friend or family, but you haven’t done it.
In my personal example, I have felt guilty for not publishing as many articles as I would like to this blog. I felt that I owned you an article (which sometime eats at me psychologically). But you see this feeling of “debt” isn’t real and is pretty ridiculous. It’s just my mind doing its trick to create drama and suffering. And seriously, I should write only when I’m inspired and able to do so.
4. More Beneath the Surface
The perceived problem causing the guilt is just a small piece visible on the surface. Typically, there are unresolved issues or other meaning beneath what we see on the surface.
Ask yourself – what are these issues? By addressing the surface, the guilt might seem to disappear, but it’ll be back. The problem will surface again, dressed in another form but rooted in the same underlying issue.
The best strategy is to uncover the underlying issue. For example, I felt guilty for not attending a party, especially after some peer pressure from friends. The underlying issue may be that, “I want to be liked and accepted by my friends, I’m afraid that they’ll stop liking me if I don’t go to the party. I need their friendship in order to validate myself.”
One way to address the underlying issue for this example can be: find ways to feel whole and complete about myself without the need to be validated by other people. Practice building self confidence and self appreciation.
Tips for Dealing with Guilt:
- Fully Experiencing the Feeling – As with overcoming any emotion, the best way is to fully experience the feeling. Spend a few minutes in uninterrupted space, close your eyes, now fully and deeply feel the guilt surge over you. Witness it as a third-person. It will probably hurt, but just be with it, it’s an experience that will help you overcome the feeling. As you fully witness the feeling, you will notice the feeling slowly fade away.
- Seek to Understand Why – We know that there are more beneath the surface for why we feel guilt in the first place. Ask yourself why? Why are you choosing to allow guilt into your life? What is it about this feeling that is serving you and your ego?
- Focus on What You Can Do Now - Focus on things you can do now, instead of things you have not done. Guilt is often regretting something you did not do in the past, so recognize that we cannot change time. If we cannot go back to the past, then why are we spending energy pondering the past?
- Brainstorm Action Items – What are some tasks you can do to remove this feeling of guilt? Write them down.
- Prioritize – Once you have your list of action items, prioritize them in order of importance. What will cause the greatest relief of your pain? Put a number beside each item.
- Planning and Scheduling – Once you have your list of action items prioritized, schedule them into your calendar. Plan to tackle each one of these items, with the high priority tasks first.
- Be Realistic - Realize that you only have a set amount of time each day. Be realistic with what you plan to get done. Please be gentle with yourself, don’t give yourself a hard time if you cannot achieve them. Focus on the high priority items. Think 80/20 rule: What action items will give me the biggest return for my time?
6 Step Process for Resolving Self-Inflicted Guilt
The following is a simple technique I used to overcome these feelings.
(I know there are other techniques out there and I’d love to hear about them. Share with us in the comments.)
Step 1: Create Your Guilt List
On a blank sheet of paper, write at the top: “Things I feel guilty about:”, and list out all the things you feel guilty about. For each item, use a separate line and leave a gap underneath each one (space for 3-4 lines).
Keep writing until you run out of guilt-related thoughts. Do not edit your thoughts. Write down whatever comes to mind. Use multiple pages if necessary. Use only one side of the page, so it’s easy to review this list later.
The idea is to get these thoughts out of your head. You have been carrying these thoughts around and they take up space in your mind. This exercise attempts to clear out some of these thoughts. By having them laid out on paper, we can see them clearly, and come face-to-face with our self-inflicted guilt thoughts.
When I did this, I was shocked at how long my list was. Examples from my own list:
- Not enough time in a day to do what I want
- I’m not spending time reading or meditating. I’ve lost myself.
- Not writing enough articles. So many unwritten articles.
- Sleeping too late. Not going to bed after Adam waits up for me.
Step 2: Brainstorm Your Guilt Battle Plan
For each guilt, ask yourself, “What can I do about it?”
In the space under each item in your list (from Step 1), describe the actions that you can take to eliminate or reduce this guilt. You might have to break the actions into smaller steps.
Example, list of actions to address my “not spending time reading or meditation” guilt:
- Schedule reading time daily, minimum of 30 minutes.
- Minimum of 5-15 minutes every morning to meditate (sit quietly)
- Wake up earlier
- Sleep earlier
If you’ve tried, but can’t find a resolving action, then list out positive and realistic statements to reason with this guilt. Example, statements for my “Not writing enough articles” guilt:
- I am doing the best that I can.
- I write when I am inspired. It’s okay to post twice weekly as long as I maintain consistency and quality.
Step 3: Create Your Values List
On a new blank sheet of paper, write at the top: “Aspects of My Life That Are Most Important to Me:” or “What I Value Most:”. List out things most important to you, starting from the most important. I used the term things broadly, which can be replaced with people, feelings, opportunities, actions, and commitments that you value. Similarly, for each item, use a separate line and leave a gap under each item.
Imagine, if you can have only one thing out of life, what would that thing be? Write down the first thing that pops in your head. Do not edit your thoughts. Now, repeat the question with “if you can have two things”. It’s important to write without editing.
Here’s a partial list for what I value most:
- Feeling present, calm, peaceful, healthy, energetic and centered.
- My family: my parents and my partner, Adam.
- My blog: readers, connecting with readers, providing value.
- My job and business.
- My friends.
Step 4: How to Fuel Your Values
For each item you most value, list out action items you would like to do which contributes towards that item.
Example, for my most valued item, “Feeling centered, peaceful, energetic.”, some action items are:
- Meditation and quite time
- Planning and Journaling
- Reading time.
- Exercise: Jogging and rebounding.
- Drinking water.
- Orderly living space.
Step 5: Create Your Guilt Reduction Action Plan
On a new sheet of paper, write at the top “Things I Will Plan For” or “Things I Would Like to Do Regularly”.
Scan through the action items from both lists. You might find some common action items that exist from both lists. Write these action items out on a separate sheet of paper. These are the higher priority action items that will give you the biggest return for your time, since they contribute towards things most important to you as well. You can list disjoint items as well, but mark them as lower priority.
Example, some common items I see from my lists are:
- Sleeping early and waking up early.
- Reading time
- Meditation & quiet time
- Reduce email & web browsing time
For me, it became apparent that if I just addressed these items, the quality of my life will increase significantly. Not only will I reduce self-inflicted guilt, but I will also contribute towards the aspects of my life that I value most.
Step 6: Habituate Your Guilt Reduction Actions
Put a weekly schedule beside each item from step 5. Even if you don’t do follow it, this will create the space in your awareness which will allow positive change to happen.
- Meditation: minimum daily quiet time of 5-15 minutes. I will also do Nithya Dhyaan meditation twice a week (Sundays and Wednesdays).
- Reading: 30 minutes – 1 hour daily.
- Sleep: go to bed before 1am daily.
We often don’t do the tasks that we want to do, because we don’t create the time.
Take one action item that will make the biggest difference to your wellbeing. Make it your highest priority and commit to doing it everyday for the week.
It’s important to focus on one action item at a time, so that you can turn it into a habit, before moving on to the next.
I wish you success. Let me know how it goes.
Regardless of what we think the external circumstances are, the real cause of guilt lies within ourselves. We have the power to choose what to focus our attention on, but we often react instinctively and forget to control our perspective. And in the reactive patterns, we unconsciously give attention to guilt and accidentally welcome it into our inner space.
It is possible to stop yourself in your reaction, and witness your inner space as you react. With practice and conscious awareness, it is possible to undo our conditioning for instant reaction, and eventually eliminate guilt completely.
Editor’s note: This article took about 3 weeks to complete, as I have been dealing with this self-inflicted guilt the entire time. I’ve created this simple six step process in dealing with my personal feelings. I have tested and refined the process myself, and I am noticing a positive shift in my state of mind. I hope you may find it helpful in your life.
Allowing ourselves to make changes in our lives for the better takes real courage. What is the one action you would like take to eliminate some guilt in your life? I know that you will have the courage in you to follow through.
For your courage, I applaud you.
What is one guilt you are feeling now (or felt recently)? What actions can you take to free yourself from it? Share your thoughts in the comments.