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Should you feel guilty?

Guilt…..it’s a very powerful emotion.


It can hijack us, paralyse us and cause endless sleepless nights and it usually doesn’t work alone.  Alongside guilt we can feel stress, anxiety, sadneguiltss, anger or fear.  What a cocktail that is!

But guilt isn’t all bad.


When was the last time you felt guilty?  What did you feel guilty about?


There is a good chance it was because you did something that you later thought you shouldn’t have done or because you didn’t do something you later thought you should have.


Notice the words – “should” and “shouldn’t”.


These words are judgemental and they come from us evaluating ourselves and our actions (sometimes our thoughts too).  This evaluation isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, it is exactly why guilt isn’t always the baddy!  Just like other emotions we can often learn from them because they all serve a purpose.

So, what is the purpose of guilt?


It is like an internal calibration.  It encourages us to stop and reflect on our thoughts and actions.  Imagine life without that internal balance.  We’d all be doing exactly what we want without any consideration for others.  We’d be serving our own needs at the expense of others.


When we feel guilty it can be useful to notice the thoughts that come with it.  Those thoughts give you an insight into your internal moral compass.  Thoughts about the consequences of your action (or inaction) and the impact on others shows empathy and compassion.  Thoughts about not meeting yours or others expectations can help to drive and motivate you to be your best.  Thoughts about how others might feel about your behaviour demonstrates emotional intelligence.


But guilt isn’t always rational.


When you start to notice your thinking about feeling guilt you might notice that some of those thoughts don’t make sense.  We worry unnecessarily about what other people think.  We get angry with ourselves for making a wrong decision.  We waste energy going over and over a situation we can’t change.


Here are 3 steps to dealing with your guilt:

  1. Recognise it’s a natural and sometimes helpful emotion.  Instead of allowing it to fester and grow, accept it and turn towards it to see it is trying to tell you.
  2. Ask yourself 2 questions – “Did I mean for my action/inaction to cause that outcome?”, “Could I have made a different choice in that moment?”
  3. Show yourself compassion.  Assuming that you didn’t mean for someone else to be hurt, inconvenienced or challenged by your actions give yourself a break!  It is likely that you made the right choice in that moment with the information you had available to you.  It may be that you would choose something different next time but that’s ok!  That’s part of the experience of being human.


So…..my advice to you is to set the intention to focus your energy on moving on from guilt rather than dwelling on it.  You can do that by following the 3 steps about so that you move from comparing yourself to what you “should” or “shouldn’t” do towards feeling confident that you will do (or not do) what is most appropriate in each moment.

This topic of guilt came up in a recent workshop I ran with business owners and leaders so you might also want to take a look at this blog on Conscious Leadership before you go.

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