Have you done mistakes in your past you still regret and cannot forgive yourself? Did you harm other people or your own chances? Do you feel chronic low-level guilt without a good reason? Do you sometimes feel you don’t deserve to be happy?
Many people sabotage their own happiness because of guilt. Sometimes people, consciously or unconsciously, create suffering in their lives trying to atone for their past. But that rarely changes anything, and certainly is not constructive. Can we find better ways to make up for past mistakes?
Guilt, of course, is sometimes healthy: it teaches us to cooperate and be considerate to others so we could all help each other survive. But many people still carry guilt even after they have successfully learned this lesson and guilt is no longer needed.
Let’s start with defining three basic types of guilt or self-contempt:
- that which is realistic and based on consciously selfish and malicious decisions
- that which is related to mistakes made under influence of immature emotions or wrong judgments, but without conscious malice and bad intentions
- that which is based on exaggerating our mistakes and taking on too much responsibility.
Of course, these 3 categories overlap because nothing in this world can be that simple. Sometimes the most difficult thing is to determine which category do your mistakes really belong to.
Few people belong cleanly into the first category. Selfishness and malice are usually latent in people, and if we feel strong emotions we might find excuses to allow them to surface. Even terrorists often believe their goals are worth resorting to violence and death, because there seems to be no other way. Many people are deeply convinced that if certain behavior benefits their own families or tribes, it’s justified or at least forgivable – even if they would be livid with anger if such behavior was used against them (this is the most obvious in politics lately). This is more about tribal instincts, egocentric value system and lessened ability to empathize with “others”, than finding pleasure in others’ suffering.
Once when (and if) such people reach a higher level of maturity, change their value systems and recognize the pain their decisions caused to other people, they might become better people – but the price is usually feeling guilt about their past. Many people avoid growing up and allowing their better potential to expand, only to avoid guilt. But without facing guilt, they cannot grow into a person they’d respect – and so they remain trapped in their “lower self”.
Much more commonly, people appear malicious when their behavior is actually fueled by:
a) fear (e.g., trying to control others because of fear of chaos, or greed that comes out of insecurity)
b) toxic early models of behavior (e.g., playing victim, or being rough and cold because of cultural beliefs that compassion and kindness equal weakness)
c) some weird, but common hope that hurting others would make them recognize and appreciate our own pain.
With these explanations, my intention is not to justify or relativize toxic behavior; of course there have to be consequences, but consequences don’t have to be extreme and life-long.
These behaviors usually reflect emotions suppressed in early age and defensive strategies created in childhood; too bad that so few people have the knowledge about how childish emotions can be triggered in adult people. When childish emotions resurface, they can be so strong and convincing it can be difficult to accept they might not be realistic. If we allow ourselves to look deeper in such emotions, it might surprise us to recognize where they actually come from and how one-sided they are. Without such awareness, we can easily resort to unhealthy, impulsive behavior which we can later regret. In my opinion, most toxic behavior belongs into this category.
We can regret such behavior a few hours later after the emotions subside, or a few years later, when experience teaches us to see another perspective. Regret and guilt can lead us into unproductive self-contempt, or even depression, rather than motivate us toward constructive efforts to repair damage and achieve a lasting change in behavior. Depression doesn’t help anybody, including people you might have hurt. If some of that guilt and self-criticism are also childish and overlapping with healthy guilt, we might feel stuck and emotionally paralyzed.
In the third category are people who try hard to be the best they can, but it never feels quite enough. They always feel like they’ve made a mistake, or they might make mistakes because they are trying so hard they end up feeling paralyzed or exaggerating. Or they come across somebody who is never pleased (and there are enough of such people around).
Considering that people’s individual interests overlap and we are constantly in one another’s way, it’s impossible not to be in conflict with others every now and then – from small things like who will take the last item from a shelf in a supermarket, to big ones like promotion at work or property boundaries. Healthy people will negotiate and seek balance, but if we were trained to feel guilty, the very fact that such conflicts happen might make us feel something must be wrong with us. We might be ashamed of our natural needs and have a belief that if we were good enough, such conflicts wouldn’t happen. Thus even small, everyday conflicts might cause such people to sink back into self-blame.
Of course, if such people come across somebody who likes to criticize and manipulate, they are in danger of hurting themselves and maybe others around them trying to please such a person. For example, they might neglect their own families trying to please relatives or neighbors. Such mistakes, of course, might cause even more guilt and self-blame, and so on in circles.
This type of guilt is almost always a result of toxic circumstances in childhood. Such people were perhaps brought up with a lot of manipulation and criticism by parents, or they witnessed abuse or were victims of it, or they were pushed into carrying too much responsibility (such as through emotional incest, see here). Children who are by nature more empathetic, sensitive and cooperative usually end up feeling the most guilt. Thus people who suffer the most from guilt are often those who least deserve it.
Do you believe you aren’t a particularly good person? Self-criticism and self-examination are already signs you want to cooperate and be responsible – in other words, you keep other people in mind and have high quality values (or at least higher than you had in the past). Which means you already are a better person you believe you are, or a better person than who you used to be. Truly bad people don’t question themselves; they believe kindness is weak and that “strong” people have the right to exploit the “weak” (in another words,”might makes right”). The more you question yourself, the more likely you are a good person – and the opposite – just like insecure people are more often right compared to the overconfident ones.
An advice for this kind of people: when you feel guilt or shame, remember your good intentions. Empathetic and cooperative people, when they make a mistake, often identify with others’ judgment of them – often the worst type of judgment. We might believe such one-sided, sometimes malicious perspective over our own knowledge. In childhood, this instinct helps us socialize. But if we experience a lot of overreaction and criticism as children, we may start to expect it and automatically identify with the expected criticism – something like “I’ll punish myself before they punish me.”
You need to detach from such judgment, return into your own sense of self and remember your feelings and motivation when you did the thing you feel guilty about. If you belong into this category, your intentions were good, even if the information you had was not complete or you were driven by emotions from your childhood. And it’s your intentions that describe your character, not the end result or prejudiced judgment from the outside. Also, recognize that your guilt is more likely coming from your childhood than current events.
What if you have truly hurt somebody in your past? The very fact that you have acknowledged and understood your mistake, and you regret it, means you have changed your value system, which means you are not the same person you were before. Why not love this new, better person you have become, and give it a chance to be happy, even if you might still criticize your old self?
Many people have much higher expectations of themselves than of others. We might expect ourselves to not make mistakes, while accepting others’ mistakes as normal human imperfections. (Of course, some people have the opposite attitude, but that is often a defense mechanism and compensation for hidden fears, too.) We often forget that mistakes are the best way to learn, and that in this complex world there is a lot that our relatively simple minds cannot understand without enough experience. If someone you like told you about their mistakes, wouldn’t you be understanding and find mitigating circumstances? Could you apply this approach onto your own mistakes? If not, why not? What beliefs come up? Imagine how would a friendly, compassionate person perceive your mistakes. What advice could such a person give to you?
The more extreme your guilt, and the more resistant it is to different perspectives, the more likely it comes from your past. Even if your parents weren’t overly critical, perhaps you expected too much of yourself as a child if there were difficulties such as illness of an important family member, or parental fights and divorce. Or one of your parents might have been a role model for exaggerated self-criticism and guilt, so you took it up as normal.
One pretty good definition of selfishness is: if your behavior causes more damage/trouble for others than you would be troubled by not doing it, then it’s selfish. For example, if you cut somebody off in traffic just because you don’t feel like waiting your turn, it’s selfish. But if you cut somebody off because you’re late for your plane, or you are hurrying to help a sick family member, then your need is (likely) greater than theirs and such behavior can be excused (even if other drivers might still swear at you). Of course, this too is simplified and not always applicable, but it can be a vague guidance. However, if as a child you have learned to dismiss your own needs while exaggerating other people’s needs, it might be difficult to recognize balance.
Explore how much of your guilt might be a result of the childhood belief that mistakes are unforgivable and irreparable. Recognize that this belief comes from your past, that it’s exaggerated and unrealistic. Connect to your inner child which is suffering because of all the guilt and help him/her adopt a different perspective and accept making mistakes as a part of human life.
Certainly sometimes you have some mean thoughts and feelings, or you entertain a thought to commit a crime. It doesn’t mean you are bad – it’s just a combination of some residual primitive instincts (which we all have) and normal human thought process of considering alternatives and choices. It’s not an occasional thought or mental image that defines your character, but the decisions you make and the behaviors that follow.
Finally, if you have wronged somebody in the past, consider how you can fix the damage or make up for it, even if belatedly. More about this in the article “How To Truly Forgive And Be Forgiven“. Instead of obsessing over your past, focus on building yourself up into a person you want to be. The more you do things you can be proud of, the less your mind will get stuck on things you did in the past.