Strategy 1: Talk It Out
That unfortunate joke you told at the party sounds horrible when you play it over and over in your head. But if you tell a friend, it may not seem so bad. “Secrecy is the intensifier of guilt,” said Dr. Edward Hallowell, author of Dare to Forgive: The Power of Letting Go & Moving On (HCI, $13, amazon.com), because keeping it to yourself doesn’t allow for fresh perspective.“Once you’ve bared something that you find troubling and discover that your friend isn’t nearly as shocked as you thought she would be, the guilt begins to drain away and you feel better.”
And even if your friend is somewhat shocked, just airing the topic can keep you committed to being more sensitive in the future. By discussing the issue openly, “you accept the fact that you’re not perfect, that you’ve done things that aren’t pretty,” said Hallowell. But that doesn’t mean you should punish yourself forevermore.
Strategy 2: Try to Make Amends
If you’ve done something that you truly regret, say you’re sorry and try to remedy the situation. Most people appreciate the conciliatory gesture because it’s a signal that you care about their feelings and value the relationship. And you may find that they weren’t all that upset. “Very often the things you are feeling guilty about didn’t have any impact on the other person and you’re suffering for no reason,” said Hallowell.
Strategy 3: Try a Reality Check
Guilt often arises automatically, based on standards internalized during childhood. So before you reflexively accept guilt, take a minute to stop and ask, “Am I consciously living by my own expectations?” said Mark Leary. Perhaps your mother washed and waxed the floor twice a week. But you may not feel that’s the best use of your time and energy, so you choose not to. Still, you feel guilty about not waxing. Those are your mother’s priorities, not yours. And keep in mind that you may be the only one who is invested in the thing you feel so guilty about.
“Worrying about your failings as a mother because you didn’t bake homemade cupcakes when the child doesn’t even care is guilt gone wrong,” said Margaret Clark, a professor of psychology at Yale University.
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Strategy 4: Give Yourself Credit
Remind yourself that what you did imperfectly is just part of being human, said Leary. Tell yourself, Everybody is late from time to time. Or, Everybody says something stupid on occasion. That the behavior isn’t unique to you doesn’t make it OK, but it’s reason enough to stop beating yourself up about it.
Try keeping a journal of all the good things that you’ve done. “Typically, people who are susceptible to guilt have a hard time giving themselves credit for anything,” said Hallowell. So whenever you’re feeling overwhelmed by guilt, stop and list five things you’ve done that are praiseworthy, whether they are small or large.
Strategy 5: Break a Sweat
Instead of sitting around in a funk, go for a run, a bicycle ride, or a swim, or play a few sets of tennis. “Working out is like hitting the reset button on your brain,” said Hallowell. “It’s hard to exercise and feel guilty at the same time.”
Granted, this is not a permanent fix for an overwhelming feeling that you aren’t pulling your weight at work or you’re neglecting a friend, but it’s a perfect antidote for smaller, isolated issues that may keep you awake for a night or two.
Strategy 6: Beware of Guilt Trips
Guilt isn’t always something that you load on yourself. Some people (whether they intend to or not) induce guilt in others―often to advance their own agendas.
To avoid falling prey to this, assess whether the other person’s point of view is legitimate and if he or she is taking your needs into account. For example, perhaps your elderly mother doesn’t get out much and loves your visits. But your daily presence will not literally cure what ails her, as she none-too-subtly suggests. If making the long trip to see her every day means you have to neglect your own family and yourself, this is a setup for more guilt. In this case, your mother’s need is legitimate but her representation of it is exaggerated.
Talk to the other person about solutions that work for both of you so no one feels resentment toward the other. And if all else fails, bringing her a batch of cookies (store-bought) always makes things better.