Guilt is a red flag.
When we feel guilt, we know that something is wrong. In this way, guilt is a lot like physical pain. If we’ve done something wrong, made a mistake, or failed at something, guilt is a possible emotional reaction. This is good, because guilt is what prompts us to make amends. Guilt nags at us until we’ve put things right.
If you’ve done something wrong and feel guilty, the best thing to do is to listen to the guilt and then make amends. How? Here’s a few steps.
- Identify what you did wrong. You probably already know. But maybe you just know that a person is angry with you. In that case, just directly ask. “Hey, I can tell you’re mad at me and I think I know why, but can you tell me why?”
- Listen to the person wronged. Don’t justify or explain your actions and don’t jump to defend yourself. Instead, listen to everything s/he says so you can clearly understand what happened and how s/he interpreted it.
- If possible, make amends. Pay back the money. Replace the broken thing. Clean up the mess. Explain the misunderstanding to any affected third parties. You’ll know how to make amends because you listened so well. And if there is no way to make amends, then just stick to your apology. Sometimes we just screw up and all we can do is ask for forgiveness.
- Release the guilt. Regardless of whether you are forgiven or not, once you have apologized and attempted to make amends, your responsibility is over. Guilt no longer benefits you.
Holding on to Guilt Helps No One.
Once you have apologized and done whatever is possible to make amends, you are free to release guilt. But no one seems to acknowledge this. Frankly, we don’t want people to do that anyway. We’d much rather people stew in their guilt until they’ve been punished. This is when guilt transforms from a useful emotion to a weapon.
If someone refuses to forgive you, that is not your problem.
Hear me clearly here: you must take personal responsibility for the wrong you have done, apologize with NO caveats, and attempt to make amends.
But once you have done that, you are free to release guilt, even if the other party doesn’t forgive you.
You do not have to feel guilty just because you are unforgiven.
You do not have to feel guilty just because your attempt to make amends was rejected.
So the first thing that’s really wrong with guilt is that we often forget or refuse to release it. Stockpiled guilt can disable us. Guilt is relational. We don’t feel guilt alone – we can’t feel guilt unless we are in relationship with another living being (and yes, pets count). Because guilt is relational, there is a very natural tendency to give your power over to the other person. When you make amends, the desired result is forgiveness and reconciliation. But what if the person refuses to forgive? What if the person is dead, or will no longer talk with you? What if there is no way to make amends? What then? Are you powerless? NO!
I’ll say it again: Once you’ve apologized and attempted to make amends, you can release guilt.