Sometimes guilt is appropriate: it links us to our moral compass and spurs us to right our wrongs. But too often, guilt crosses the line into inappropriate. It keeps us stuck, ruminating about the past, and, unchecked, can lead to depression. So what should you do if you feel as guilty as a teenage boy with a freshly erased browser history? This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers 7 ways to let go of guilt.
Listener Lou wrote in and asked, "How do I let go of guilt? I feel guilty about everything, even things I haven’t done!"
Lou notes that she was pretty horrible as a teenager and hasn’t been able to forgive herself for being so selfish and careless back then. She also worries that she’s equally awful now and just isn’t aware of it, all of which leads her to feel—you guessed it—guilty! This week, we’ll dive into 7 things Lou (and you!) can do to finally let go of the guilt.
7 Tips on Letting Go of Guilt
- Remember the flip side of guilt.
- Right any outstanding wrongs.
- Challenge hindsight bias.
- Challenge your assumptions of a lack of justification.
- Challenge a sense of overresponsibility.
- Challenge the thinking error of wrongdoing.
- Get older.
Let's explore each a little further.
Tip #1: Remember the flip side of guilt.
Guilt makes us feel lower than a worm’s belly. But the fact that we can feel guilt is actually a good sign. Guilt is a sign of empathy and a signal that we care about not hurting others.
In fact, at the University of British Columbia, a pair of researchers set out to determine the opposite of psychopathy—that is, being a psychopath—and found that a significant part of the answer is a tendency to feel guilt. Plus, a predisposition to guilt often goes together with honesty, cooperation, consideration, and conscientiousness—all good things that the researchers dubbed "compassionate morality."
For our listener Lou, the simple fact that she worries about being "equally awful" is a sign that she’s not—Lou, if you were truly an awful person, you wouldn’t be worried about it.
Tip #2: Right any outstanding wrongs.
Of course, not all guilt is an illusion. If you feel guilty about a wrong you haven’t righted, go ahead and make amends. Yes, it’s awkward to reach out. Yes, you’ll find a million reasons not to. But most likely, you’ll be glad you did. If nothing else, a heartfelt apology and offer to make things right will soothe your own conscience.
Tip #3: Challenge hindsight bias.
A lot of what the mental health world knows about guilt comes from research with combat veterans. War is rife with opportunities to feel guilty: guilt about killing the enemy, guilt about enjoying killing the enemy, guilt about killing or displacing civilians, guilt over surviving when others died, guilt about violating the “no man left behind” creed, guilt over feeling disconnected or alienated after coming home, and more.
But veterans’ guilt, even if the circumstances are specialized, can apply to us all: mommy guilt, Jewish guilt, Catholic guilt, liberal guilt—the list goes on. At the root of all this guilt lie four common thinking errors that are universal and often conspire to make us feel inappropriately guilty.
The first is the hindsight bias, which is a mistaken belief that the outcome was known at the time. For example, in the military, a soldier might feel guilty about shooting someone who appeared threatening but turned out to be unarmed. Another example might be not being there for a friend who subsequently revealed their depression. In any case, a surefire way to spot hindsight bias guilt is the phrase, “I should have known.”
What to do in this situation? Think honestly about what you actually knew at the time. Differentiate between “I should have known” and “I wish I had known.” For instance, switch “I should have known she was depressed,” to “I wish I had known she was depressed, but I didn’t know one way or the other.” It’s not a copout—it’s the truth.