Guilt is defined by Wikipedia as “a cognitive or emotional experience that occurs when a person believes or realizes – accurately or not- that he or she has compromised his or her own standards of conduct or has violated a moral standard and bears significant responsibility for that violation.”
Based on that definition, guilt comes not from the mistakes that we make in life, but from our perception that we violated a standard or expectation we have for ourselves. Whether or not that belief is based in reality or not has no bearing on whether or not we feel guilty.
How to stop feeling guilty about your past
So, with that in mind, I wonder if the problem becomes not about the mistakes we have made in our lives but more about our expectations that we shouldn’t make mistakes at all.
If our standard is set at perfection we are setting ourselves up for failure by the fact that we are human! I noticed as a new mom I found myself constantly feeling guilty over mistakes made in parenting. For years I let that guilt eat away at me and it took away a lot of the joys of being a mom.
I wrote about my experiences with guilt and ultimately forgiveness in the book “Lose that Mommy Guilt” and learned from readers how incredibly common those feelings are for most moms out there.
If it is so common, then could there be benefits to feeling guilty?
Sure, feeling a sense of guilt can motivate us to make a change or do something differently in the future. It can teach us empathy and connection to others and allow us the ability to identify how and when we can improve.
In that sense it can be helpful and can dissipate when we take steps to make amends or remedy the mistake. But what about the times when we seem to have trouble overcoming regret and getting over past mistakes and we find we are beating ourselves up over things that happened in the past?
Let’s take a closer look at what we can do to stop feeling guilty about past mistakes:
Grow from it
Have you changed something about yourself or the situation since that mistake? Was there a learning that happened which led to growth and new ways of doing things so that you did not make the same mistake again? If not, then ask yourself what can you take from this experience to make you a stronger and better person moving forward?
Taking responsibility does not mean beat yourself up. It means you accept the fact that mistakes and imperfections are a part of life. You understand that these things happen and where possible you look for ways to make amends.
For example, apologize to a loved one you may have hurt or pay someone back for a costing them money. We can get tripped up when we take personally our mistakes as if they fully define who we are. Taking responsibility is a sign of strength in that we accept the situation as it is and are able to take action toward remedying what and when we can.
Re-think your expectations
What was the expectation you had for yourself that you violated? Was it realistic? What I mean by that is are you feeling guilty because you’re holding yourself to a higher standard than anyone else? What would you say to a friend you made the very same mistake? Would you be able to forgive and move on?
If you answered yes to that questions them perhaps it is time to treat yourself with the same compassion and forgiveness you would offer anyone else.
Examine the Evidence
Ask yourself if your memory of the mistake accurate? That sounds like a silly question but the reality is we often remember events and situations from our past differently than they actually happened. Are you remembering your mistake as larger or more problematic than they really were?
As a clinical therapist I often work with clients who use cognitive distortions such as having a “mental filter” where they dwell on the negatives and ignore the positives. Could we be misreading the situations just a bit and placing more blame that actually exists?
We are human beings and by definition that makes us fallible. We make mistakes and we learn from them the best we can. There is no such thing as perfection and the more we understand that and embrace that, the better we can bounce back from our own mistakes and become stronger and better for them.
Guilt over our past mistakes can hold us back from seeing our full potential and take action toward growth. Isn’t it time to stop feeling guilty and focus on the future?