How Feelings of Guilt Can Impact Our Behaviour and Self Perception

Written By: Heather
Heather Kempton Coquitlam Couples Counsellor

Feelings of regret and remorse are common when you make mistakes or do something that is hurtful to others. These are the emotions that help you make changes in your behaviour and allow you to grow as an individual. Feelings of guilt go beyond regret and remorse. These feelings often lead to you labelling yourself as a “bad person” because of what you did (or didn’t do). Feelings of guilt often result in unwanted emotions and behaviours, rather than promoting personal growth.

Guilt is often a substitute for change. Sometimes guilt leads to action even if the purpose of the action is to enable you to feel better and not benefit the person you’ve upset. Guilt can serve several purposes in our lives. Such as punishing yourself, defying obligations, to show superiority, protect one’s self from strong feelings of anger, as well as possibly acting as a motivator of change.

Beliefs and thoughts that make us prone to feelings of guilt are:

  1.  I must be perfect
  2.  I must please others
  3.  I must be right
  4.  I must be in control
  5.  I must help others
  6.  I can’t stand it when people are angry with me
  7.  I must be successful
  8.  I am inferior to others

In order to reduce or eliminate feelings of guilt we must choose a new inner dialogue and ditch statements of “absolutes” (should, must, always, never etc.).

How can I overcome feelings of guilt?

  1.  Examine the purpose of your guilt. Finish the sentence: “I am guilty of….”
  2.  Analyze your beliefs and thoughts – look for language of absolutes “should”, “must”, “would”, “could”, “always”, “never”, etc.
  3.  Choose new thoughts – use words like “I wish”, “unfortunate”, and “I’m ok”. Practice repeating these new thoughts to yourself over and over again until your feelings of guilt subside or diminish.
  4.  Make a decision and commit to it: a) continue to feel guilty or b) make a commitment to new behaviour. What will I do differently next time?
  5.  It is important to remember that your past does not define your present. Guilt can only arise when you associate with who you were in the past instead of focusing on who you are and what you are doing in the present.

Learn how to forgive yourself so you can learn from your experiences and do something differently now. Your heart is always willing to forgive; it is your mind that blames you and others.