This morning, I was having a conversation with my family about all the things we wish we did this year. One family member said, “I’m feeling guilty because I should have done more. I had all this extra time, and I feel like I wasted it.” Then I realized that I, too, had some regrets from 2020. I even felt guilty about things I couldn’t control, like school going online and damaging my learning. If you’re feeling the same way, never fear–just because you accidentally murdered your sourdough starter and your quarantine exercise routine crumbled after one week does not mean that you have failed.
Feeling Guilty is Not Unusual
All things “2020” aside, most of us experience guilt. We feel guilty for things we do; we feel guilty for things we don’t do. And when we’re proud of something we’ve accomplished, we feel guilty for being too self-centered. If there were an Olympics for feeling guilty, I’m convinced we’d come to a worldwide draw.
True, sometimes guilt spurs us to fix things that we’ve broken. When you feel guilty for hurting someone else’s feelings, you then make amends and start anew. If you’ve been dishonest, your guilt can cause you to apologize and commit to living with integrity. So, in many ways, feeling guilty can be a good sign that you are living well and seeking to improve.
However, while guilt can be motivating, it can also be unnecessary and harmful. In this case, the guilt eats us up inside. We start to question if we are good people, and every action starts feeling rickety and shameful. The good news is that an effective spirituality practice can decrease and even eliminate this unhealthy guilt.
Celebrate Your Small Victories
Guilt can make you freeze up, keeping you from moving forward. The first thing to do is to acknowledge it. When you find yourself despairing in a guilt vortex, zoom out for a moment and tell yourself, “I know what this is. I’m feeling guilty. This is normal.” Recognition alone can be powerful in overcoming it. After that, take a few deep breaths.
After taking a step back from your emotions, express gratitude for what you have accomplished. We tend to overevaluate our choices and exaggerate our weaknesses when we feel guilty. Instead of fostering self-criticism, celebrate your small victories. Maybe you’re judging the breadth of your accomplishments using someone else’s ruler. Trust your previous self, and believe that you truly did the best you could at the time.
It can also be helpful to focus less on what you have done and more on who you have become. What attributes have you developed recently? Maybe you’ve become more gentle with yourself, or more forgiving of other people. Perhaps you’ve expanded your intellect through reading, writing, or schooling. Chances are, you have become a better person than you were before.
Turning to others for support can also help. Not only can they reassure you that your guilt is unnecessary, but also they can empathize. Everyone has felt unhealthy guilt at one time or another. Sometimes you just want someone to sit with you and say, “I know how you feel. It’s awful.” They can share their own experience and help you feel understood.
Turning to God
Connecting to the divine can lessen your feelings of guilt. It largely depends on what you believe about this higher power. If you believe in an all-powerful God, you can take comfort in their ability to take away your guilt. If you resonate with the idea of a divinity that loves you unconditionally, that love can melt your guilt away. And if you believe in an omniscient and even impersonal higher power, you can find peace by putting the smallness of your guilt into a grander perspective. Whatever your understanding of the divine is, it can decrease the guilt that you feel.
But what does it actually look like to let go of guilt through spiritual connection? You might be doing a lot of it already. Pray for comfort from the higher power that you believe in. Ask it to take your guilt away, or seek inspiration to know which practices you can do to feel less guilt. You could also try writing. As you record your feelings and thoughts, especially surrounding your guilt, you may stumble upon a new idea. This can lift your spirits and lead you to healing.
I’ve rarely had experiences where God stole my guilt in a flash after a single prayer. More often than not, it trickles away gradually. I’ve learned that I can’t expect something so negative to disappear if I don’t replace it with something positive. So, keep devoting yourself to uplifting activities. Continue your personal spiritual practice, whatever that looks like. Be patient with yourself. Eventually, the burden of guilt will fade. You will be happier, more confident, and spiritually connected.