6 Ways To Let Go Of The Toxic Guilt That's Keeping You In The Past

Guilt has always played a big part of my life, and it would weigh me down like a helmet made of stone. I would act naturally, speak my mind, do what felt right and then go home and play it over in my head 100 times to the point where I could not make peace with it.

I would worry about what others might think and became fearful of the consequences of my actions. This was quickly followed by a sense of guilt at the thought of potentially hurting the feelings of another person, which was never my intention.

What is guilt?

Guilt is both a cognitive and emotional process working together against you to not only sabotage your happiness, but also how you feel about yourself and others. The mind is prone to finding problems in every situation, and that includes mulling over past actions.

The inner critic, that part of your unconscious thought processes that likes to remind you of mistakes, will try its best to push your worries to the front of your mind. It will take away presence, and you will find yourself exerting a huge amount of mental energy as you attempt to make sense of and reject the negative impact the process is having on you.

Inevitably, thoughts follow feelings buried inside of you. You'll start to project your feelings onto the person you may have, or perceived to have, wronged. This be could a reflection of experiences where you were hurt yourself or just the natural tendency of compassionate or sensitive people to empathize with how others "might" be feeling.

Why do we have guilt?

Guilt is not a completely negative condition. Normal amounts of guilt are natural for someone with a healthy moral compass. However, excessive guilt — when the person looks for reasons to dislike or even hate themselves — can often be associated with low self-esteem or high levels of responsibility.

Childhood experiences might play a part here. In my case, I always felt responsible for the separation of my parents, and I blamed myself for the sadness and arguments that preceded it.

An overly critical, judgmental or conditional parent or sibling could result in internalized feelings of inadequacy. The criticism could also come from outside the family.

Perhaps a teacher or friend would react immaturely to something you said, did or didn’t do. This would particularly be an issue during teenage years when you are still exploring your beliefs about yourself and life, and you look to peers to validate this.

Guilt could also be the product of simply learning to hold on for too long. Often, we hold on to memories, objects, people, places, etc. in an attempt to control life or avoid feeling abandonment.

Those who regularly suffer guilt can often identify with these traits:

1. They are afraid to take risks.

2. They sensor themselves a lot and are less natural and impulsive.

3. They chase peace of mind from others and often change their behaviors to get this, such as seeking approval by being overly agreeable.

4. They worry a lot about what others think about them.

5. They replay events in their head repeatedly like a broken record.

6. They try to read the minds of others.

7. They can sometimes be intense people and take life quite serious.

Here are some steps to reduce the impact guilt is having on you:

1. Separate fear from reality.

Guilt and worry are close cousins, and it’s important to distinguish the fears in your mind from the reality of what has happened. This also includes projecting your own feelings of sadness onto others. Try to stay level-headed and focus what “actually” happened instead of what has, or might, happen next.

Ruminating over past events and future problems is often a learned behavior. Perhaps it is a by-product of having a lot of space as a child, and your active imagination had time to run away with itself. There was no adult around to ground the thoughts and feelings. Or maybe, you inherited a pattern of guilt from a parent or older sibling who was hard on him- or herself for not meeting a societal or personal expectation.

Now, decide to break the habit and work on stripping fear from your mind. Imagine how you would like the situation to turn out. Visualize how you would be if you were not so easily bothered by life.

Learn to compartmentalize your worries into management units, and allow yourself a specific timeframe to reflect and resolve them. Or, simply explore what your life would be like if you learned to forget all your mistakes and just got on with task of living your life.

2. Accept that guilt is a natural process.

It is natural to resist guilt. It is also common to act the guilt out on others by being unnecessarily harsh. Ultimately, all feelings pass, whether they're from anger, fear or guilt.

If they didn’t, we would all struggle to function through the emotional roller coaster. You have felt guilt before, and you will feel it again. So, just let it be. Reconcile that the emotion is part of being human, and you may find it disappears as you give it less energy.

Whatever you did or didn’t do, it felt right at the time. You may have just acted naturally, or you were under the influence. An event may have triggered uncontrollable emotion, overriding your rational thought processes and ability to stay in "adult" mode.

Whatever happened, be 100 percent sincere with yourself. Look at the real reasons behind your actions. Were you setting a boundary by saying no to someone? Were you just honestly expressing a feeling or opinion?

Were you reacting unconsciously to a remark or situation? Were you chasing an unmet need, such as acting a certain way to receive praise or respect from others?

Be objective and look at what has happened without judgment, and then decide whether to deal with the root of the action or to simply write it off.

3. Make a seriousness scale.

Life is not meant to be taken seriously. But sometimes, we lose perspective and turn minor issues into massive roadblocks. Whatever you are beating yourself up about, try to measure the actual seriousness of what has happened, and then decide how much guilt you should actually feel.

1. This is really bad (aka life or death). I don't know how I can live with myself.

2. I feel terrible for hurting someone, and I hate myself.

3. I'm not really sure of its seriousness, but I've done something wrong and I'm feeling guilty for the sake of it.

4. I feel bad, but it's not the end of the world. This will blow over.

5. I'm probably being silly, I haven't actually done anything wrong and I have no need to beat myself up.

4. Fast-forward a year later.

You have made mistakes before, but you are still here and survived the incident. If you look back to your past, did anything bad actually happen in the end? How do you feel now about what has happened then? Does it bother you now when you look back?

Time is not only a great healer, but it also allows us to see the bigger picture of life. Some mistakes that you felt guilt over at the time may have been the best thing that has ever happened to you.

Try to imagine where you will be 12 months from now — where the current situation is history — as you deal with the next challenges of life.

5. Develop self-love.

When we look in the mirror, we see our adult selves looking back, and the reflection might serve to remind you of mistakes or bring up feelings of guilt or remorse. Instead, sit on the rug in the living room and pull out a picture of yourself when you were 5, 6 or 7 years old.

Imagine what life would be like for the child if he or she was filled with guilt. What would it be like to be a child who was alone with feelings of worthlessness?

What would you say to that child now? Would you tell the child he or she doesn't need to feel bad, that he or she didn’t do anything bad, that it's OK to explore life and make mistakes and he or she is a great little person no matter what? Or, would you say nothing to child, but just pick her up and give her a hug?

Visualize nurturing this child every day, and notice the emotions that rise inside you. It might start with nothing as you find it hard to connect with your own childhood. If you persist, you may experience sadness as heartbreak and the real source of the guilt might come through.

As you work through this, the feelings might dissipate, and a new sense of being loved and valued for who you are might grow inside you. But, this is a process that needs time, energy and diligence to experience change.

6. Move on.

Life is hard enough without you sabotaging it by beating yourself up over small or even big things. Self-love is about knowing when to push yourself, but also when to take the pressure off.

We’re all only human, doing our best with what we know now and hope to learn in the future. But, true growth only comes from making mistakes, and nothing good comes from feeling guilt when things don’t go according to plan.

Ditch the need to control life and the endless combination of circumstances, and focus on just being you. Strive every day to let go of the negative affects of the past, but learn from them and use them to inform your future decisions.

This article was originally published on Toxic Escape.