The emotion of guilt, if allowed to go on for any extended period of time, can be harmful to us and also to others we interact with on a regular basis.
Guilt is that emotional state where we experience an internal conflict when we have done something that we believe we should not have done. Similarly, we can also experience guilt when we don’t do something that we believe we should have done.
Like most emotions, guilt can be either healthy or unhealthy. Healthy guilt is an invitation for us to look at our behaviours and actions, and improve them so they align with our values and standards. Unhealthy guilt, on the other hand, can destroy our self-esteem and decrease our self-confidence, which will affect us in detrimental ways.
The sooner we can face and deal with any emotions of guilt, the sooner we will be able move past it and reap the benefits of it.
I remember when I had a corporate career and had been newly promoted into a managerial position of a site that had about 70 employees. Prior to taking up that position, there had been an agreement made by the site’s employee and management committee to order a certain type of uniform for the employees on the shop floor. When I was made aware of that decision, I raised it with my manager who advised it was not the right decision and advised me to reorder the same type of uniform we had previously.
What I proceeded to do was to instruct the purchasing officer to cancel the order and place a new order even though she had advised me what had been agreed to previously. She was upset because she was made to feel she had done the wrong thing and I hadn’t supported her. The truth was I failed to take responsibility for knowing that a decision had been made. At that time, I felt guilty for not supporting the purchasing officer and that working relationship started off on the wrong note.
The purchasing officer left the company within three months and I still felt guilty that the experience she had with me was one of the reasons why she left. I wished I had taken steps to deal with my guilt at that time and made the situation right.
The sooner we can address any feelings of guilt, the better off we’ll be. Here are five ways to deal with and move past guilt so that we don’t get trapped in any negative consequences longer than is useful.
- Recognise the type of guilt you are experiencing. The type of guilt we feel will determine whether what we are feeling is healthy or unhealthy. Healthy guilt should be like a “kick up the pants” we give ourselves so that we can raise our standards and do better next time. An unhealthy feeling of guilt will cause us to be hard on ourselves and even prevent us from doing what we know we should do to correct the situation. Knowing the type of guilt we are experiencing will enable us to take the appropriate action to overcome it.
- Visualise what you would liked to have done instead. Allowing ourselves to reflect back on the experience can be valuable because we will be able to see in our mind’s eye what could have been a better way to deal with a situation that has caused us to feel guilty. What this does is its gives us an opportunity to deal with a similar situation in the future better and with more confidence. The key here is not to beat ourselves up and go into blame and regret mode.
- Correct the situation as quickly as possible. This is a big step because the best way to quickly deal with guilt is to address the situation with the person concerned and communicate what is going on for us. This should not be used as an opportunity to pass blame or judgement, instead it should be used as the forum to “clear the air” and agree on how to move forward. In order to do this well, we must be willing to be vulnerable, take responsibility and apologise if necessary.
- Accept your part in the experience and let it go. We all make mistakes and we will continue to make mistakes. If we are not making mistakes, it means we are not challenging ourselves enough to grow. When we do make mistakes, we must take responsibility for our part in the situation but it is also important not to dwell on what we did wrong for too long. One of the most valuable things we can do is acknowledge what we did wrong and be okay with letting it go, and make a commitment to do better next time.
- Focus on the lessons you have learned from the experience. Every experience, good, bad or indifferent, can teach us valuable lessons if we’re willing to look for them. We will always find lessons if we allow ourselves to acknowledge how we would have liked the situation to play out and what we could have done better. The lessons we learn will make us stronger, reaffirm what standards we want to hold ourselves to and improve the relationships that may be affected.
If left unresolved, guilt can have some long-term negative consequences, but if addressed quickly, we can become a better person as a result of an experience. Applying the steps above when we start experiencing emotions of guilt will go a long way to dealing with it without the it ruining our life.
Question: What could be another thing we can do to deal with guilt?
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