I previously talked about the difference between guilt and shame. I said “Shame is the feeling that I am a bad person. This is different than guilt which is the feeling that I did a bad thing. Feeling guilty over things we have done is normal and often appropriate.” While this is true, its not the same as saying that we should walk around feeling guilty about the things we have done. Guilt, while normal, can actually be a very self-destructive emotion.
Guilt vs Remorse
Guilt is the feeling of “I’ve done something bad” or “I didn’t do something I should have done” and it is something we all experience. The problem with guilt is that it is a very self-centered emotion. Guilt is focused on us and our actions. Guilt is about being critical of ourselves. Feelings of guilt are ultimately self-harming and unproductive.
Remorse is a feeling of sadness related to the consequences of of our actions. Remorse is directed at the people we have harmed, not towards ourselves. Unlike guilt, remorse is not about being critical, its about having empathy for the pain we have caused. While guilt is self-centered, remorse is selfless. Remorse is not a pleasant emotion, but it is healthy and can lead us to become a better person.
Getting Rid of Guilt
Moving past guilt requires action. It involves acknowledging out mistakes, working to heal the damage we have caused, and taking action to change our behaviors. If we don’t change the behaviors, we will continue to harm others fueling further feelings of guilt and shame.
Unfortunately, real change is not easy. Change, even positive change, is painful. People generally do not change until the pain of remaining the same is greater than the pain of changing. That is why remorse is a positive emotion. When we have empathy for the people we have harmed and experience that pain, it can motivate us to make the changes that will make us better, happier people.
The Process of Change
People don’t change by simply making a decision to do so. That’s where many people get into trouble. They think they can just make a decision to change and are then baffled when they keep repeating the same hurtful mistakes. Change is all about action. We don’t think our way into new behaviors, we act our way into new ways of thinking.
Its not going to happen all at once. Change is a process not a point. It can be difficult to focus on our progress rather than our shortcomings, its often easier to point out where we have fallen short rather than where we have improved, but change requires acknowledging both. We won’t make progress if we ignore our mistakes but neither will we continue to grow if we don't recognize the distance we have come.
Change also does not happen in a vacuum. Usually real change is going to require help from other people. It often involves the very people we have harmed as we work towards making amends for our actions. Throughout this process, will likely need to seek help from friends and loved ones and sometimes we may even need to reach out for professional help.
We do not have to be defined by the mistakes we make nor do we have to live with feelings of guilt shame. As human beings, we will never be prefect. We will at times make mistakes and hurt people. Its the actions we take when we fail that will ultimately determine our health and our happiness. We cannot change the past, but we do not have to let it control us.
Jeff Harrolle, LPC
Thrive Counseling & Trauma Therapy