Guilt feelings are common, healthy, and useful in short durations. However, when guilt lingers passed its usefulness, it can cause emotional distress and lead to more serious psychological issues. These steps suggest ways to effectively repair relationships when it is possible and ways to let go of useless and destructive guilt when it is not.
As children, we were taught to say I’m sorry when we caused harm to others, but many times I’m sorry is not enough. When others are hesitant or unwilling to forgive us, it is often because they don’t believe that we are sincerely repentant. Based on research, Psychologist Guy Winch suggests that the most effective apologies – the ones that convey your remorse, prompt forgiveness, and repair relationships – include the following elements.
Include these three statements. Although these statements might be implied, for example, I am sorry implies I regret it, research suggests that implications are not always enough. All three statements need to be verbalised, sincere, and explicit in order to work.
- Statement of regret. I regret what I did.
- A clear statement of apology. I am so sorry.
- Request for forgiveness. Please forgive me.
Validate of the other’s hurt feelings. Emotional validation may seem counterintuitive – because we don’t want to highlight their pain – but research suggests that when others feel understood, it actually diffuses their distress. In order for emotional validation to work, it needs to be accurate. Here are steps we can take to ensure accuracy:
- Let the other complete their version of events without interruption, even if their version is clearly skewed.
- Convey understanding of the situation from their perspective, even if you don’t agree with it.
- Convey understanding of how they felt (again from their perspective) as a result of your actions.
- Acknowledge that their feelings are reasonable (remember, from their perspective, they are).
- Convey empathy and remorse towards their emotional state.
Take responsibility for hurting them. I am sorry that I hurt you. We often fall into the Sorry, Not Sorry trap when we want to apologise but don’t want to accept any responsibility for their emotional state. Statements like, I didn’t mean for you to get hurt or I am sorry that you’re angry, display insincerity and often backfire when we try to use them.
Offer compensation or atonement. By offering to make it up to them, we acknowledge that we injured the relationship and we want to take tangible steps to repair it. I am sorry that I made you wait so long, perhaps I can pay for lunch.
Acknowledge that you have violated expectations, rules, or social norms and reassure them that you won’t to do it again. Whenever possible, convey specific measures. I am so sorry that I forgot your birthday. I am so forgetful but I have a reminder in for our anniversary.
Sometimes there is no way to apologise. We may have no way of making up for the wrongdoing (in instances of Survivor, Disloyalty, or Separation guilt) or our attempts at reparation may have failed. When we are unable able to receive forgiveness, guilt can eat away at us. If we don’t want unresolved guilt to lead to more severe psychological issues, we need to let it go.
Self-forgiveness is a process rather than a decision. It is not the same as accepting or condoning our behaviour. It is in fact the opposite; it is taking an honest look at our actions and taking authentic responsibility for the harm that we caused.
Acknowledge that the guilt is serving no productive purpose in your life.
Take full responsibility for your actions. Unless we give an honest and accurate account of our actions, we will not be able to authentically forgive ourselves. Glossing over the harm that we caused will result in the guilt feelings bubbling up at some later date. Winch suggests a writing exercise:
Describe the event and your actions.
- Go through the description and take out excuses or qualifiers. For example, delete statements like, She made a bigger deal of it than it was, or, He did it to me first.
- Summarise the harm that you caused both tangibly and emotionally. She lost trust in me. I embarrassed her. She lost face at work.
- Go through the description again and make sure that it is realistic and accurate. It is important to not minimise or inflate your culpability. Ask: If someone were to make a film based on your description of events, would the film look like the actual event?
Consider extenuating circumstances. Do this only after you have completed the first four steps. Ask:
- Was the harm intentional? If so, why?
- If not, what was the original intention? What went wrong?
- What extenuating circumstances contributed to it?
- Try to understand the full context of the situation.
- Take steps to make changes in your thinking, lifestyle, behaviour, or priorities that will ensure that you will avoid similar mistakes or actions in the future.
- Atone or make meaningful reparations. What contributions, commitments, or efforts can you make that feel substantial enough to earn your self-forgiveness? Do one of them.
- Create a short ritual to mark the end of atonement. Find a way to note completion of penance. At which point you make peace and stop punishing yourself with your own negative feelings.
- Reengage in life. The ritual may feel like weight has been lifted off your shoulders, so celebrate! Do something that you enjoy or spend time with friends.
Address Free-floating Guilt
If you have guilt feelings that are not attached to anything in particular or they seem to float and attach to whatever you are thinking about, you may suffer from Anxiety. Overactive anxiety can manifest as guilt feelings.
FIND OUT MORE: about Anxiety. Or about How Psychotherapy (and Monkey therapy) Helps You Overcome Excessive Guilt.
References and Contributions
Guy Winch. (2013). Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries.
Joseph LeDoux. (2015). Feelings: What are they and how does the brain make them? Daedalus.
Kelly McGonigal. (2015). The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It.
Karla McLaren. (2010). The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You.