Archived Story

Column: Trouble with guilt? Its time to let it all go

Published 12:00am Saturday, March 22, 2008

By David Larson, Power for Living

We all make mistakes.

We misjudge. We say things that hurt. We make choices in our anger that we later regret. We may think inside, &8220;I didn&8217;t mean it!&8221; but it&8217;s too late &8212; the action or words cannot be undone.

There is nothing wrong with regretting certain actions or choices.

It&8217;s good to see when we&8217;ve hurt people and it&8217;s good to make amends.

For many of us, however, we experience guilt as more than a passing experience tied to a recent event. We seem to get caught in it. Instead of feeling guilty occasionally, we may discover that we visit the Land of Regret frequently. When we do, it is a pattern.

Why do we do this?

For some of us, it may just be habit. We saw it modeled in our childhood home. We may have had a parent that handed out &8220;guilt trips&8221; and we are used to it.

When we moved away from home we continued the pattern by guilt tripping ourselves.

Others of us feel guilty because we unknowingly hang on to the belief that the past can be changed.

Our guilt arises out of the fantasy that if we continue to feel bad about something, it will erase it, fix it, or will help us find a way to make it better.

Although this belief is erroneous, nonetheless, it is still powerful.

If we believe the past cannot be changed, we would see no value in continuing to feel guilty, and we would let it go. The truth is we only do what we think will bring us what we want. We often desperately want to change what we&8217;ve done.

The hope, the illusion, that the past can somehow be magically changed can live deep within us for many years.

Others use guilt as a way of &8220;paying for&8221; what they&8217;ve done.

It&8217;s self-punishment.

Inherent in this is a belief that errors deserve punishment, and that it is noble to apply this punishment to ourselves.

Others yet see guilt as a way of trying to change themselves, to motivate themselves to &8220;never do it again.&8221;

When we do this we succumb to the unconscious belief that feeling bad about ourselves has more power to help us make different choices in the future than feeling good about ourselves.

So the beginning of managing guilt is this: You must identify what you are intending to accomplish by continuing to embrace it.

If your reason is habit, are you giving up your right to choose what you believe and allowing old family patterns to become your own? How long before you make your own choices consciously? Do you want to keep this habit or discard it?

If your belief is that feeling guilty can change the past, can you let yourself know in a tender and sensitive way that no amount of guilt can change what&8217;s already been done?

If you are one of those who believe that guilt cannot change the past, yet you hang onto it, are you doing this for self-punishment?

When will you be punished enough?

Do you believe that mistakes need to be punished? How about letting yourself be human and realize the following truth:

You always do the best you can in any moment. Once you grasp this, the reason for punishing yourself evaporates, for how could anyone deserve punishment for doing their best?

Are you one who guilts yourself for motivation? Check it out. You may discover that continuing to make yourself feel bad drains you of energy that is needed for you to make better choices in the future.

Sometimes when we feel good about ourselves rather than bad about ourselves, it strengthens our chance of choosing more loving actions the next time around. Many find that the positive energy in loving themselves with forgiveness and tenderness not only makes them more effective, but they feel much better, too!

David Larson, M.S., L.P.,C.P.C.C., is a psychologist life fulfillment coach. He can be reached at the Institute For Wellness, (507) 373-7913, or at his Web site,