You said you were going to stick to that diet, but you gave into temptation yesterday. You promised your kid you’d help them with their homework, but you got home late and were too tired. You were supposed to meditate every day this week, but you only made it to Day Two.
What’s that sinking feeling? That nagging voice? That notion that you might as well give up?
The Dangers of Hanging onto Guilt
The event that caused the guilt or the size of its presence does not really matter when discussing the repercussions.
One person may feel only slightly guilty for sideswiping a car after running a red light. Another person can be positively overcome with guilt after canceling plans to attend a birthday party. The latter – who did nothing more than skip a party! - maybe more predisposed to the negative impacts of guilt.
The two main ones are poor self-esteem and a weak immune system.
When you let feelings of guilt take over, you’re constantly sending yourself negative messages about…yourself. Messages that ruminate on how you let others down, have no self-control or are incapable of meeting goals. Over time, this understandably affects how you view yourself, what challenges you’re willing to face, and what victories you let yourself celebrate.
Healthy self-esteem is important in leading a happier life. But so is biological health, which can also be compromised by guilt.
Consider a study where participants discussed and rated activities that gave them pleasure, along with those they felt guilty about. Those who reported higher levels of guilt had lower immunoglobulin levels. That makes them more likely to catch viruses and literally heal their wounds.
So, go easier on yourself; you might be guilting yourself sick.
Tips for Tempering Guilt
It’s not always as easy as telling yourself, “Stop feeling so guilty!” Here are a few tips that can help you shift away from guilt.
1. Come back to the present.
Emotions like guilt lie in direct opposition to mindfulness because guilt involves decisions you’ve already made and events that have already taken place. Guilt is provoked by thoughts of the past! Use thoughts of guilt as a reminder to practice mindfulness, where we exist in the here and now.
2. Change your reaction.
When we feel guilty, we judge ourselves. We criticize how we handled something, or how we feel we are in general. This helps perpetuate the guilt because we just keep digging up more reasons to blame ourselves. Instead, we could be plotting actionable steps that help us deal with the negative emotions. Even if we can’t make it 100% right, we can be thankful for what we have in front of us, and get clear on our vision for the future.
3. Note the negativity.
Sometimes the conscious awareness that we are having a damaging thought can help us overcome it. Don’t let guilty feelings lay around festering like it’s normal. Gently remind yourself that ruminating with guilt hurts your health, and won’t help you change behavior. Catch it early and often, and you’ll experience far fewer negative thoughts in general.
Are you prone to feelings of guilt, even over really small stuff? What advice do you think here might help? Share with us in the comments.