Emotional contagion is real, and you can use it to your advantage.
I’m a 34-year-old working woman with a husband, an active social life, two extremely energetic dogs, a house full of plants, a 55-gallon aquarium that frequently needs its water changed, and an array of daily responsibilities.
Every morning, I grab my breakfast, plop down in front of my computer, and draft up my daily to-do list. I get through what I can but inevitably end up neglecting a good third of my intended tasks. And every night I go to bed with an arsenal of guilt swirling around in my head: I didn’t get all the work done I would have liked to, I cut my dogs’ walk a little short, I watched “The Real Housewives” from my couch in lieu of going to yoga. The list goes on and on.
I brought this up during a recent session with my therapist and instead of her typical routine of validating my feelings, she let out a chuckle. “When would you have time to do any of those things that you are feeling guilty about not getting done?” she asked. Before I could reply, she reminded me: “You can’t feel guilty about not doing it all. There are only so many hours in the day. Everyone struggles with this.”
And she’s right. Nearly everyone does. But is that a bad thing?
In the book “Escaping Toxic Guilt: Five Proven Steps to Free Yourself from Guilt for Good!,” Susan Carrell explains that guilt can be either “a negative energy that diminishes your life or a positive force for change.” But in our highly motivated society, guilt is also something that can easily get out of hand. Professional life coach Beverley Glazer says, “If you’ve had a strict upbringing, as an adult, you may set your standards too high and judge yourself too harshly. And that’s where the problems arise.” This is what Carrell refers to as the dark side of guilt. “Excessive guilt diminishes our ability to enjoy many aspects of life. It can cast a gloomy shadow on our relationships with others.” For instance, if your mother makes you feel guilty every time you call her, it will eventually lead to resentment.
“This type of guilt is the most harmful to oneself. Since guilt makes you feel like you’ve done something wrong, you don’t like yourself much if you feel guilty at the drop of a hat,” Carrell notes. “How could you, if you feel you are constantly making mistakes?”
So here are six ways we can stop feeling guilty all the time:
John Grohol, Psy.D., founder of Psych Central, advocates for people allowing themselves to identify their wrong or hurtful actions and then work to move forward from it. Grohol says: “You cannot change the past. But you can make amends for your behavior, if and when it’s appropriate. Do so, apologize, or make-up for the inappropriate behavior in a timely manner, but then let it go. The more we focus on believing we need to do something more, the more it will continue to bother us and interfere with our relationships with others.”
In her book, Carrell writes that figuring out what you need is the fundamental key toward warding off toxic guilt. “You probably do a great job of respecting the rights and needs of others but you have to realize that you have rights and needs too,” she explains. “You have the right to own and protect your own emotional territory, without feeling guilty about it.”
We all make mistakes in life. It’s an inevitable part of human nature and the sooner you recognize that no one is perfect, the quicker you can start easing up on yourself. “Don’t engage in days, weeks or months of self-blame or battering your self-esteem because you should’ve known, should’ve acted differently, or should’ve been an ideal person,” notes Grohol. “You’re not and neither am I. That’s just life.”
“Guilt doesn’t solve problems, it amplifies them,” says Chris Hodges, who runs GoTRIBE Fitness. The L.A.-based trainer says guilt puts an unnatural stress on the human body and can actually cause people to turn to vices like junk food as a coping mechanism. So if his clients fall into a cycle of feeling bad about overdoing the buffet at a party, it can lead to a cycle of eating more junk food, which takes them further from their weight loss goals. “Don’t use guilt as a driver for success, use grace and persistence,” Hodges explains. “You have a way better chance of succeeding.”
Guilt is a form of anxiety, says Edward Hallowell, M.D., host of the Distraction podcast. “Whatever alleviates anxiety will likely alleviate guilt,” he says. “Meditation, exercise, talking with a friend, walking a dog, listening to music, prayer, getting a massage, or whatever tricks work for you to reduce anxiety will reduce feelings of guilt.”
“You should congratulate yourself that you are prone toward feeling guilty,” says Hallowell. “The people who are plagued by guilt are usually really kind and conscientious people trying to live up to unrealistic standards out of a desire to be a better person. Try to reframe your guilt in these positive terms and it may become more bearable.” To boost your mood, he also suggests making a list of things that you can give yourself credit for. “The list is way longer than you likely realize! Carry it around with you and pull it out when you are feeling guilty.”