A little bit about guilt and self-care.
I’m not going to lie, I’ve done a lot of stupid things in my life. Very rarely life-threatening, and most of them forgiven, but they still rank up to a fairly comprehensive list of things to dwell on and feel guilty about when I’m trying to get to sleep. Guilt can also be a big old blockage when practising self care if we focus too much on it – particularly if you get ‘stuck’ on situations you wish you’d handled differently.
Ironically, mindfulness and self-care (and recovery, for my sober pals) can also facilitate feelings of guilt. From looking back on arguments we’ve had, or stupid decisions we’ve made, or even just not making the most of our time – self-reflection can lead to some pretty overwhelming regret. It can also be misplaced if you hold yourself to too high a standard – we’re constantly putting ourselves under pressure to look great, work hard, have perfect relationships, to ~have it all~. We’re even feeling guilty for basically just being a normal human.
At what’s now 3 (!) months of sobriety, a lot of my guilt definitely seems to come from evenings and occasions spent under the influence – but even with the positive changes I’ve made, and all the self-care in the world, they still crop up. So, how can we get this guilt and regret to bugger off?
Guilt and remorse vs. self-loathing
It’s a tricky one with feeling guilt about something – on the one hand, it can be a strong driving factor to make a change, but on the other, it can really mess with your head if you let it get on top of you.
Guilt, in itself, can actually be kind of a positive thing. It comes from actions that run counter to your beliefs about the way things should be. If those beliefs are realistic and relatively consistent, a feeling of guilt can act as a warning sign that something is not good for you. In the case of sobriety for example, guilt can act as a reminder of negative experiences that have happened in the past, and motivate you to continue on your new path.
However, guilt can become unhealthy depending on why you’re feeling it, and your response to it. If you feel guilty because you are not being an absolutely perfect human, or because your actions are running counter to an unhealthy belief system (for example, guilt over choices of food for those with eating disorders), it can serve to push you into a hopeless sense of self-loathing. If you try to analyse the guilt you are feeling, and you can’t see a way to alleviate it or move past it, that’s when we might start to run into trouble.
Understanding guilt in the context of self-care
It’s important to remember that guilt is designed to help you make good decisions – don’t push it down or completely disregard it. Addressing things you regret is necessary to move forward with personal growth, and to ‘check in’ with yourself emotionally. Think first about why you’re feeling that guilt, and if it was justified in line with a healthy, self-loving mindset – a couple of questions to ask include:
- Did I hurt myself or others?
- Was I able to act differently?
- If I’d acted differently, would it have been healthy for myself?
If the answers are no, you might be coming down too hard on yourself, and unfortunately the issue may be more around anxiety or another deeper concern – this is something called neurotic guilt. If the answers are yes (Sadly for myself, more often than not, they are), then congratulations, you’ve got yourself a good old-fashioned regret!
Letting go of guilt
It’s really really hard to let go of things you can no longer change. When I get flashes of remorse or struggle with a feeling of guilt from the past, my automatic reaction is to try and find someone to absolve me of that guilt, but ultimately that’s not always possible. There are literally hundreds of articles on forgiving yourself out there, but the way I try to look at it is like this:
Every positive step you take is a step away from the thing you feel guilty about. Actions speak far louder than words, and the only way to really overcome something you feel valid remorse over is by learning from your errors, and living your best life accordingly. Time is a distance, and every day that you go without returning to bad habits, or causing that same regret, is day away from the person you were that made that mistake.
Next time you’re lying in bed feeling all rubbish about something that happened a while back, remind yourself of how far you’ve come, and how far you’re gonna go. Be grateful for how well you’re doing, and keep pushing forward.
Lots of love,
More resources on guilt: