After making a mistake, feeling guilt is a good thing — it means you have empathy. Sometimes our guilt is self-imposed and unhelpful, like after you let yourself relax and subsequently don’t feel productive enough. Other times, guilt is a powerful motivator to do better going forward, like after you fail to make time for your loved ones. Once you’ve properly apologised for whatever is causing that nasty pit in your stomach, it’s time to overcome your guilt and use it as a tool. Here’s how to turn your guilty feelings into productive plans for change.
Channel guilt into changing for the better
Just like how stress can often be a strong motivator to get something done, guilt is a powerful emotion when it comes to enacting change. You can deliver the most heartfelt apology of all time, but it means nothing if you don’t change your ways going forward.
Rather than over-apologizing, or curling up in a ball of shame, stick to an action plan. For instance, if the source of your guilt is the fact that you always cancel plans on people, make a plan to stick to your commitments going forward. This means stopping yourself from overcommitting in the first place and only scheduling appointments you know you can make.
Recognise what is in and out of your control
Using guilt as a motivator applies even with more abstract, tricky issues. Take the guilt surrounding white privilege, for example. One the one hand, initial feelings of shame toward your identity are helpful in recognising the fact that you have privilege; on the other hand, there’s nothing helpful about wallowing in self-hatred around something you can’t control. Here, turn to the words of writer bell hooks: “Privilege is not in and of itself bad; what matters is what we do with privilege…We have to share our resources and take direction about how to use our privilege in ways that empower those who lack it.”
Own the parts of yourself you can’t change, and then turn any discomfort into action. This could look like educating yourself about where your privilege comes from, donating to reputable causes that aid marginalised groups, and speaking up against racism among friends, family, or coworkers.
The bright side of guilt is that it shines a light on the things about ourselves we know conflict with our values. At times, guilt is a liar — for instance, you shouldn’t feel ashamed about setting a necessary boundary. All too often, however, guilt is a result of making a genuine mistake, and it’s a sign that something needs to change going forward.
Guilt can be all-consuming, but when you recognise where it’s coming from, you can use it to grow and change. The key is take your negative emotions and channel them into actions within your control. And if you tend to always feel guilty about things out of your control, then you might consider exploring those feelings with the help of a professional.
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