• You eat a piece of chocolate, or two, too many.
  • You arrive late for an appointment.
  • You snap at a friend or colleague, or even your mom on the phone.
  • You buy a pair of shoes you don’t really need.
  • You spend time surfing the web instead of playing with your kids.
  • You went for a massage instead of spending time with your family.
  • You think of Johnny Depp instead of your husband while making love.

Whenever I coach women or talk to my friends, at some point the discussion turns to or around the subject of guilt.

Not that anyone is actually naming the beast!

No one is actually saying: I feel guilty!

The guilt is voiced in a more subtle way:

  • I should have…
  • I shouldn’t have…

Fill the dots with any of the above examples.

The shape of guilt

Guilt comes in all forms, shapes and sizes.

Guilt is an important emotion. It makes us human. If children do not feel guilty when they hurt another child, we should start to worry.

A psychopath for example, does not know guilt because he has no empathy. The emotion is closely tied to our moral compass and keeps us on the right path. So it is normal to feel it in the right moments.

Guilt looks around the corner when we have done something that is not in line with our values. It’s an internal alarm that indicates what you find valuable. It steers your future behavior because you will want to avoid that negative feeling.

But not every feeling of guilt is based on wrong behavior. You can feel guilty when you are pregnant while your sister or friend has been trying to have a baby for years. Or the guilt you carry because you had to put your parents in a home.

You can feel guilt for things that are not really your fault. Some people can carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. Especially ‘self critical perfectionists’ feel a lot of guilt as they tend to be really harsh on themselves.

Calling your mother 5 times a day and still feel guilty as soon as you hang up is an example of unjustified guilt.

2 hours per day

Researchers estimate that you experience a mild form of guilt 2 hours per day,  a medium form of guilt 5 hours per week and a serious form of guilt 3,5 hours per month. Some feelings of guilt can last a long time, some are even present lifelong.

Guilt = shame?

Even though both feelings are very close, guilt is not the same as shame. Guilt works like a motive. It makes you want to change your behavior and is thus a constructive feeling. Shame on the other hand will make you want to retreat.

6 tips

Here are some tips to help you with guilt.

  1. Ask yourself: did I make a mistake?
    If the answer is negative, you have an unreasonable feeling of guilt.
    Feel bad because you left your grandparents after only an hour visit? Ask yourself if it was wrong to leave early. You will see that most of the time there is no reason for guilt.
  2. Set priorities.
    By choosing what is really important to you, you will be able to reduce your feelings of guilt. Often a field of tension between different roles causes guilt. If you choose more consciously, you will suffer less. A classic example is the working mother. You can make one of the roles a priority – you cannot do everything perfectly.
  3. Turn it around.
    How bad would you feel? Would you be as disappointed or mad as you think the other person is? Turn the situation around and put yourself in the other person’s shoes. You will realize that more often than not are you more severe with yourself than with others.
  4. Say sorry.
    If you indeed made a mistake, try to fix it. Sometimes it helps to say sorry, or to admit you were wrong. Don’t have anyone to apologize to? Writing your feelings down gives you relief.
  5. Let it go.
    If you realize that your guilt is not only based on your doing, try to let it go. You can always feel guilty about something, but that is neither really helpful nor necessary. Realize that you are not almighty and you cannot control everything in life. And you do not have control over the happiness of others.
  6. Get perspective.
    Letting go becomes easier when you look at things from a distance. Ask yourself ‘what is the worst that can happen?’. Most of the time it is not so bad and definitely not worth hours of worries.