Why You Should Forgive Yourself
Life can sometimes feel like a speeding highway, and when you make a mistake there’s no way to go back. Failures, moments where we’ve felt disappointed in ourselves and things we regret tend to stick to us like industrial-strength adhesive and keep us up at night with worries and tension. What could you have done better back then? Is there any way to fix the past? Almost no one is completely unburdened by guilt.
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The purpose of guilt
To a certain extent, guilt and self-judgment are highly valuable functions of the human mind. Guilt, in reasonable doses, helps us all to act in pro-social ways that can be constructive, healthy, and community building. Everett L. Worthington Jr., Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, says, “There’s a reason we feel negative when we make a mistake.” It’s an important cue that tells you to remember a moment of frustration, sadness, or shame and do better next time.
Feeling guilty for stepping on your pet’s foot, for example, is healthy and normal. So is feeling guilty for forgetting an anniversary. Guilt can drive people to make amends for their mistakes. The anticipation of guilt can prevent people from doing the wrong thing in the first place, such as setting an alarm on your phone to avoid being late to an event. Guilt also helps us to eat better, drink less alcohol, and get regular exercise.
Why excessive guilt is bad
Guilt stops being a good motivator for improving behavior when it punishes you for the same act over and over again, even after you have made every reasonable effort to fix what your guilt is telling you to fix. Healthy guilt should have a clear beginning and end It should be something you are capable of resolving or letting go.
Dr. Mehmet Oz, M.D. of Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease), explains how guilt can impact your mental and physical health. Guilt has been shown to put stress on the body, he explains. Long-term stress associated with guilt can increase blood pressure and your risk of heart disease, diabetes, depression and anxiety disorders. It can also weaken the immune system and reduce your life expectancy.
Learning to release guilt
Sometimes it’s unclear how to forgive yourself. You may have fallen out of contact with someone after a quarrel. Maybe the situation you feel guilty about has long since ended and can no longer be resolved. Or maybe you feel irrational guilt about something that was never within your ability to control, particularly something from childhood. Like other emotions, there is no single explanation for guilt. Whatever the cause may be, there are steps you can take to unburden yourself and lift your spirits.
One of the best places to begin is with acceptance. An action in the past cannot be changed, no matter how much you wish it could be. Accept what happened, apologize for the things you should, take measures to prevent the same mistake from happening again, and then wash your hands of it. You may worry that you have not done enough to make a wrong right, but no situation can be resolved perfectly. If your anxious thoughts are persistent but you have done what you can, you should allow yourself to move on.
“Some people don’t have the positive guilt that keeps you on the straight and narrow. Others have guilt that eats away at their soul; they rarely have a moment of peace,” says Michael McKee, Ph.D., vice-chairman of The Cleveland Clinic’s psychiatry and psychology department.
Guilt should not burden us and keep us from becoming better people; it should never stall our personal development or progress. If you find that your guilt is far more debilitating than it is helpful, it’s time to make a change.
Allow yourself to process difficult emotions in a non-judgmental way. A good way to sit with your feelings is by meditating. You may also find it useful to give a voice to the thoughts in your head by acknowledging your mistakes out loud. This helps the situation to become less subjective and more objective; more grounded in reality and fact.
By speaking your mistakes out loud, you also imprint in your mind what you learned from your actions and consequences. Try to tame your inner critic by keeping a journal of your thoughts. Approach yourself with the kindness and compassion that you would show a friend in the same situation. Finally, allow yourself to believe that you did your best with the tools and knowledge you had at the time.
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