Guilt is a universal feeling of emotional pain caused by the belief that we’ve done something wrong, or failed in some way. We all can fall short of the standards we set for ourselves and the stress of everyday life can cause us to behave in ways that hurt, offend and even seriously harm others, accidentally or intentionally.
Guilt is how our mind tells us that we are about to or have done something that we believe is wrong or not up to our standards. We are taught to feel guilty from a very young age, and it helps to modify our behaviour to prevent us from hurting people all the time. Studies have shown that on average people feel mild guilt for approximately two hours a day, moderate guilt five hours a week, and severe guilt three and a half hours a month. For some, feelings of guilt can last for years or even a lifetime.
People who are susceptible to guilt tend to work harder, are seen as more capable leaders and are considered better friends, partners and employees. Guilt makes you more sympathetic, more able to think about the consequences of your behaviour and put yourself in other people shoes. And so, in turn, guilt-prone people are less likely to cheat or lie, and in general are more empathetic, caring people.
Guilt triggers the reward centres of the brain, causing the release of dopamine. So, feeling guilty makes you temporarily feel better but can become addictive. We often feel guilty after doing things we find pleasurable, for instance eating junk food or sexual activity so we start to link guilt with pleasure and feel excited by behaviours that make you feel guilty. This is part of the reason affairs are so exciting.
Unfortunately, guilt is not the best way to motivate us or build our self-esteem as it causes us to be self-critical. Self-criticism is the single biggest predictor of depression and causes us to have less self-control, self-worth and motivation.
So, how can you overcome the negative aspects of guilt and use it for your advantage?
It's forgiveness, not guilt, that increases personal accountability. Studies have found self-compassion causes people to take much greater personal responsibility for their failures than a judgmental point of view. They are also more open to receiving advice, and feedback from others, and more likely to learn and grow from their experience.
Feeling guilty is a normal reaction, however, set a limit for how long you're going to feel it. You don't get years in prison for a speeding ticket, but people can sentence themselves to the years of emotional pain over minor offences. They feel like they deserve to be punished, and if no one does it for them, they punish themselves. This can cause you to feel paralysed and unable to rectify the situation.
2. Separate what you did from who you are
When the guilt is overwhelming, you feel like you’re a terrible person. Telling yourself you’re a terrible person makes you more likely to do bad things in the future. If you give in to temptation, you may tell yourself, “I have no self-control.” Which in turn becomes a stronger belief and causes you to have less control of your behaviour in the future.
This is very important with children. Never tell a child they are naughty or bad, instead tell them what they did is not okay. Otherwise, they believe they are bad and will continue to do bad things. We are taught to be a good person, we need to be good all the time, which is entirely unrealistic. We are responsible for our actions but should not be defined by our actions.
3. Make amends
If you need to forgive yourself, look at yourself in the mirror, and say “I forgive you.” Continue to say it until it sinks in. Forgive yourself and know you're going to have to forgive yourself again in the future, you’re human, you make mistakes, and you're going to screw up. Next, you want to apologise if there is someone else you've hurt. Apologies do make a difference. Research shows most people prefer a genuine apology to money.
Most importantly, remember to apologise for what they think you did wrong, not what you think you did wrong. Taking responsibility and acknowledging the harm you caused is the most important action you can take to rectify any hurt you’ve caused. They may not be ready to forgive you, and that's okay. The most important thing is knowing that you have done what you can to take responsibility and right any wrongs. You may not believe you did anything wrong, but you should still apologise if you have hurt someone, even unintentionally.
4. Practice a loving meditation
There is an amazing true story about a therapist in Hawaii who was called in to help the Hawaii State Hospital ward for the criminally insane. The ward where they kept the most dangerous criminally insane patients who were out of control. The staff was constantly calling in sick, the psychologists on staff lasted on average a month, and the rest of the staff were constantly quitting. People had to walk through the Ward with their backs up against the wall as they were constantly being attacked.
Dr. Hew Len, a psychologist and an expert on the Hawaiian spiritual practice of Ho’oponopono was asked if he could come and work there to try to help the dire situation. He never counselled the patients or saw them in a professional capacity; all he did was review their files. He worked there for three years. By the end, they closed the Ward, because all of the patients were released.
When he was reviewing their files, he repeated the Ho’oponopono mantra over and over, Please forgive me... I’m sorry... I love you... Thank you. After a few months of Dr. Len reviewing their files, clients who were heavily medicated started having their medications reduced, patients who were shackled were allowed to walk freely, and patients who were expected to be institutionalised for the rest of their lives were being freed.
The staff started to enjoy coming to work. They stopped calling in sick, and no one quit, which had been a constant problem before Dr. Len arrived. Ho’oponopono is based on the premise that we are all part of one consciousness and everything that is in our experience is affected by our actions and reactions. Therefore, we are responsible for everything we experience.
The way Dr Hew Len explains it is: “Total responsibility for your life, means that everything in your life, simply because it is in your life, is your responsibility. In a literal sense, the entire world is your creation.”
The Ho’oponopono mantra: Please forgive me... I’m sorry... I love you... Thank you.
I do believe we are all connected and taking responsibility and making amends are some of the most powerful actions you can take. We can learn from our mistakes, and we understand others pain more deeply when we experience it ourselves. Forgiving yourself, and in turn, others, is one of the most life-changing things you can do. If you want to change what’s going on around you, change what's going on inside of you, and be prepared for the miracles that will take place.
Caroline Cranshaw is a hypnotherapist, founder and trainer at the New Zealand Integrative Hypnotherapy Training Institute and the author of The Smoking Cure. Find out more about her at nzhypnotherapy.co.nz. Listen to Caroline's new podcast WTF Stories & Advice.