We’ve all made a mistake we regret or feel guilty about at some point in our life.

Mistakes are part of the human experience, but we often make mistakes that cause guilt to creep in and take up space in our minds, generating tons of emotional and physical unrest.

When we use guilt to motivate us towards a different action, it can be useful. Using guilt to motivate us towards a different way to act in the future is like taking out the garbage and cleaning up your space. When we simply feel guilty and don’t do anything with that feeling, it stays inside of us and can be very damaging to the body and mind. Harboring that guilt is like piling up the garbage inside; it can only negatively impact everything it touches.

Feeling guilty can lead to continuous self-judgment and criticism of yourself because of something you did or didn’t do. If you betrayed someone for example, you may feel guilty for your actions or fear the person you betrayed will discover what you’ve been trying to hide. If you’re the one who was betrayed, you can feel guilty that somehow you did something wrong or weren’t enough in some way (which is never the case and is a complete waste of your time but it’s a typical go-to response.)

Guilt can linger endlessly; holding you back even after others have forgotten or forgiven whatever happened. For example, a few years ago I met up with a high school friend after losing touch for 30 years. Excited to get together, I was eager to learn where life had taken her during that time. After we hugged, the first thing she did was apologize for something she did to me in high school. I was stunned. “You’ve been carrying this for 30 years?” Her response: “Yes, I couldn’t wait to see you and apologize in person.” I responded: “I appreciate it but…I don’t even remember the incident you’re talking about.”

Even though guilt may seem like a terrible thing, it has a lot of power to help you acknowledge your actions and fuel your motivation to change. It can direct you to think about what you could have done differently and what you can do differently if the same situation arises in the future.

Here are a few ways to turn guilt into something positive:

Remember that everyone makes mistakes. Nobody is perfect. We all make mistakes or do things we aren’t proud of. As imperfect humans, it is impossible not to make mistakes. So don’t beat yourself up. Acknowledge it, learn from it, make it right with whoever you hurt if possible, and move on. Of course, with a huge transgression like betrayal, it’s going to take more than that but it’s a great place to start.

Forgive yourself. Without forgiving yourself, you can’t move past your guilt. It’s often easier to forgive others than to forgive ourselves. Beating yourself up for your actions doesn’t help you or the person you hurt. Forgiving yourself can be a powerful step towards different actions going forward.

Love yourself enough to forgive yourself for your mistakes. When you forgive yourself, you give yourself a chance to make things right without allowing that mistake to define who you are. Take responsibility for your actions. That’s how you take your power back.

Learn from the past.
You can’t fix every problem or mistake you’ve made, even if those mistakes might have cost you a special relationship or close friend. Making amends or reconciliation can be possible when you feel guilty about those mistakes. In fact, with betrayal, when the person betrayed knows that the betrayer feels guilty for their actions, they feel less alone in their hurt and pain. They also feel that the betrayer sees the damage they’ve caused and has learned from it; giving them hope that the person they trusted has changed.

You’re likely to learn from that and not repeat those mistakes. But to learn from your mistakes, it’s also important to accept your loss and move on. Use that as an opportunity to do better.

Ask yourself these questions: What led to the mistake? Examine triggers that provoked your actions. What did you learn about yourself through your actions? Did your actions point out any particular behaviors you can work on?

Replace negative self-talk with self-compassion. Making mistakes doesn’t make you bad. Guilt can incite some harsh self-criticism, but scolding yourself for your mistakes won’t improve things.

No doubt you might have to face some consequences of your actions, but self-punishment often has an intense emotional toll on you. Instead of scolding yourself, imagine yourself as a friend in your situation and ask yourself what you would say to a friend experiencing something similar.

Perhaps you would be gentle, point out their good qualities, remind them of their strengths, and let them know how important they are to you. Similarly, extend that same positive talk to yourself. Have self-compassion, and give yourself the kindness you’d give a friend.

You deserve kindness. Sometimes, we find ourselves in situations that we can’t control. You may have done all you could to change the outcome, but you couldn’t. It was beyond your control. If you could have controlled it, you would have so if your intentions were in the right place, give yourself some slack.

Being kind and reminding yourself of your worth can boost confidence, making it easier to see your situation from a different perspective.

Remember, guilt can work for you. Sometimes, guilt can serve as a wake-up call to your actions. So, instead of allowing it to overwhelm you, try to use it to your advantage. Use it to shed light on areas of yourself that you feel need to change.

  • For example, you could struggle with honesty, and you got caught in a lie.
  • Maybe you have plans to help someone in need, but something always seems to get in the way. Noting these situations can set you on the path to changing your actions.

Give yourself credit and love and show kindness to yourself through self acceptance. We always act from our current level of consciousness, so if this was who you were at the time, realize who you’re ready to become now. Moving past your guilt involves being remorseful without allowing it to control your life. Learning from it can be the fuel needed to do better next time.

Dr. Debi
Founder and CEO, The PBT (Post Betrayal Transformation) Institute

273: Pain, Joy, and How Contrast Informs Our Character w/ Elisa Stancil Levine