Letting Go of Guilt
Updated: Sep 13
I have struggled with guilt all my life. I came by it honestly; my mother was a fundamentalist Christian, and I grew up with stories of sin, hellfire and eternal damnation. Admonitions like “the devil finds mischief for idle hands” and “spare the rod, spoil the child” were common. She sometimes threatened to “beat the devil out of me,” and often yelled “What the hell’s wrong with you???” Hell was never very far away. I grew up feeling like I had done something “wrong,” and feeling guilty both for what I had done and failed to do.
My dad was more even-tempered and a Roman Catholic, and so I dutifully attended 12 years of Catholic primary and high schools. In every classroom there was a crucifix of Jesus on the cross, with the unstated but ever-present reminder that we (children!) were “sinners” and the reason why “Jesus died for our sins.” As with many generations of Catholics and Christians, guilt was always in the air; and it’s no wonder that I’ve felt “guilty as charged” virtually all my life.
Guilt, Shame, and Anger - How They are Related
Guilt is the felt experience of having done something “wrong,” and thereby expecting and anticipating punishment. Guilt can be distinguished from shame: if guilt is the experience of having done “wrong,” shame is the felt experience that I AM “wrong.”
Guilt and shame are different from remorse, which is a healthy response to having erred, with the consciousness of taking responsibility and doing differently in the future. John Bradshaw discusses the damaging effects of toxic shame in in his seminal book, “Healing The Shame that Binds You.”
Anger and guilt appear to be different emotions, but they are two sides of the same coin. Anger is the felt experience of blaming another person: “You’re wrong, you screwed up, and you deserve to be punished.” Guilt is the felt experience of blaming oneself: “I’m wrong, I screwed up, and I deserve to be punished.”
Anger is guilt pointed “out there” at another; and guilt is anger at oneself. Both of these arise from projection, blaming another or oneself, and judging another or oneself as having done “wrong” and thus deserving of retribution. These judgments arise from deeply held beliefs about what is “right” and “wrong,” which are anchored in fear (fear of attack and punishment), and a lack of acceptance: acceptance of human fallibility and imperfection, and a lack of acceptance of What Is.
People Are Fallible
But the truth is we humans are fallible, and we all make mistakes, every day. This is why pencils have erasers, why computers have delete keys, and why roads have U-turn lanes. We learn through trial and error; the process of making an attempt, getting feedback, and then trying again is simply how we learn.
Guilt is a habit, a chronic emotional pattern, just like anxiety or biting your nails. We are endowed with a “negativity bias,” a tendency to look for and notice what’s “wrong;” and we are hard-wired to look for the abnormal, for mistakes and aberrations. This is why so much of what we call “news” has a negative focus. Our media focuses on sensational events like train wrecks, earthquakes and mass shootings, while countless numbers of small acts of kindness and generosity go ignored and unmentioned.
Is it possible to let go of guilt?
One approach to undoing “negative” emotions is called “The Work.” Developed by a spiritual teacher named Byron Katie, it works by noticing and challenging false and limiting beliefs. There is a basic principle in CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) that says emotions are the result of our thoughts: negative emotions come from negative beliefs about ourselves and others. We can release and undo these “negative” emotions by recognizing and challenging the limiting beliefs they arise from.
How You Can Apply 'The Work' to Let Go of Guilt
When feeling guilty, simply ask yourself:
“What am I believing, that is making me feel guilty?”
You will find one or more beliefs such as,
“It’s all my fault,”
“I shouldn’t have done that,”
“I really screwed up,” or
“what’s wrong with me.”
1. Select one and write it down.
2. Ask yourself,
“Is this really true?” e.g. Is it really true that “it’s all my fault….” ?
3. Ask yourself,
"Can you absolutely know that it’s true?"
4. Repeat the negative belief to yourself several times. How do you react? What happens when you tell yourself this belief?
5. Ask yourself, “Who would I be without this belief?” Simply imagine what might happen, and how you might feel, if you no longer held this (limiting) belief.
Guilt is often the result of “shoulds,” beliefs that we “should” have done something differently. For example, for many years I believed that I “should” have done “better.” (Thank you, Dad!) I should be smarter, richer, more accomplished and more successful! Given the values and indoctrination I was taught my family, this was both “true” and obvious.
So, when I applied The Work to this belief:
“I should have done better.… Is this really true?” I still think so.
“Can I absolutely KNOW this is true?” No, I can’t absolutely know this.
“How do I react when I hold this belief?” I feel guilty, inadequate, and I beat myself up.
“What is investing in this negative belief doing for me? Is it getting me anything positive?”
No, it makes me feel worse, and feeds the chronic sense of guilt and inadequacy.
“Who would I be, without this belief??” I relax, something inside me lets go, and I feel more gentle, compassionate and accepting of myself.
"The Work" is WORK - But It's Worth Doing!
Please note that the Work IS WORK; it’s not easy to confront and challenge limiting beliefs and emotions, especially when we identify with them and believe that they are “true.” It can be easier to do the Work with a friend or a trained facilitator. Also a cognitive method like the Work does not begin to address the pain and trauma associated with sexual abuse. But the Work can be very helpful in deconstructing guilt, and the negative beliefs it arises from.
I still struggle with guilt. It’s an old habit. But I also know where it comes from --- from old, painful, limiting beliefs, rooted in theologies and belief systems that no longer serve me; and I know something I can do about it.
To learn about Byron Katie and, "The Work", visit www.thework.com
John Freedom is an author, counselor and EFT trainer in Santa Rosa, California. He serves as the research coordinator for ACEP (Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology), on the Board of Trustees for EFT International, and as executive director of FREA.