How to Release Guilty Feelings

It was near the beginning of the school year and I had just reminded my then eight-year-old daughter to pack her dance clothes in her school bag. Obviously not thrilled with the request, she let out a big sigh and said, “Mom, why do I always have to pack my own bag? All of the other kids’ moms always pack their kids’ bags.”

Ah, the guilt trip. There was a time when her strategy might have worked. There was a time when my internal dialogue would have gone something like, “If I was a good mom, I would pack my kids’ bags like all the other moms do.” Then, I would have either made a mad dash to pack her school bag or, at the very least, beat myself up for the rest of the day for not being as good as all the other moms. But times have changed, baby, and if I’m packing any bags, it certainly won’t be to take a guilt trip!

Most of us have been on a guilt trip at one time or another. I’m not talking about guilt from breaking the law or committing a crime. I’m talking about the agony you feel when you can’t be there for your children, family, or partner. I’m talking about that “tied-up-in-knots” feeling you get when you have to say “no” to someone and “yes” to yourself. I’m talking about the self-imposed guilt that stems from not allowing yourself the right to be human.

If you’ve ever been gripped by guilt, here are two strategies from my book CALM: A Proven Four-Step Process Designed Specifically for Women Who Worry to help you move from feeling guilty to guilt-free.

Challenge Guilt-Trigger Words

Words like always and never are guilt-trigger words and they’re seldom accurate. My daughter’s response to my request was loaded with guilt-trigger words and I called her on it. I said, “I really doubt that all the other mothers always pack their kids’ bags. Besides, you don’t always pack your own bag.” Another guilt-trigger word to watch out for is the word “should.” This is a high-guilt word. For instance, there are many moms working outside of the home who feel guilty because they think they should be at home with the kids. Many stay-at-home moms feel guilty because they think they should be contributing to the family’s income. Many worn-out individuals feel guilty about relaxing because they think they should be busy working on something else. Can you see how much guilt a little word can create? To challenge guilt-trigger words, ask yourself:

  • Is the statement I’m hearing or the belief I’m holding 100 percent accurate? This question will help remind you to catch and correct guilt-trigger words, providing you with the perspective you need to free yourself from guilty feelings. Write down what you’re feeling guilty about and then circle each guilt-trigger word. Rewrite your feelings in a more accurate light, eliminating every guilt-trigger word.

Release Self-Judgment

Guilt stems from judging your choices as good or bad. When we think we’ve made a bad choice, we feel guilty. The trouble is that life isn’t black or white. There are many shades of gray, so it’s not as simple as “good or bad.” To release self-judgment, ask yourself a more sophisticated set of questions. Here are two for you to try:

  • Am I doing the best I can? So you’re feeling guilty that you had to work late, that the house isn’t as clean as you think it should be; that the grass hasn’t been cut; that you ate that bag of popcorn at the movie theatre; or that you were short with the kids at breakfast. There is no use beating yourself up over it. What’s done is done. Nobody’s perfect. Don’t demand perfection from yourself. You can only do your best. Try your best and let go of the rest.
  • Is what I’m doing appropriate in this situation? Was it appropriate for me to have my daughter pack her school bag? Of course it was. In fact, it was more than appropriate; it taught her about responsibility and contributing to the family.

Is it appropriate to order dinner in instead of making it yourself when you have to work late? Of course it is. Is it appropriate for you to take time to relax when you’re feeling worn out, even if there are e-mails to be answered and phone calls to be returned? Of course it is. In fact, when you take time to recharge your batteries, you’ll discover you’re more productive than you are when you push yourself to exhaustion.

However, there may be times when you ask yourself those two questions and your response might be that what you are doing isn’t appropriate or that you’re not doing your best. Should you feel guilty then? Absolutely not. Guilt is not productive, but creating an action plan is. An action plan is your list of strategies for making positive changes, resolving problems, and learning from past mistakes. (More on creating your own action plan in CALM.)

Freedom from guilt is freedom to live. It’s freedom to take chances, make mistakes, and experience inner peace. It’s a freedom you deserve and it all begins with one small shift in the questions you ask yourself each and every day. If you’ve been feeling guilty, change your questions. Ask yourself: Is the statement I’m hearing or the belief I’m holding 100 percent accurate? Am I doing the best I can? Is what I’m doing appropriate in this situation? What actions can I take to make this situation more favorable? What did I learn from this and what will I do differently next time? Try it yourself. You’ll be amazed at how simple shifts in the questions you ask yourself help you become guilt-free.