It’s been said that guilt is a useless emotion – but as it turns out, that’s not entirely true. “Guilt can actually be healthy. It’s a message from your conscience saying that you’ve broken some personal moral rule, and a conscience is how we control ourselves,” explains Thomas Fuller, PhD, a psychologist based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The key to making the most of this troublesome emotion before it hurts your health, says Fuller, is to act quickly – then move on. Here’s how:
Ask the right questions. Taking a step back and asking logical questions can help reveal less-than-logical emotions. When you’re feeling guilty, ask yourself: “What have I done that’s wrong or inappropriate?” Then, ask yourself, “Is this moral rule that I’ve broken reasonable?” If the answer is no, then let it go, says Fuller.
Do what you can. “If it turns out that you have done something wrong or that goes against your values, try to correct the situation,” recommends Fuller. In many cases, simply apologizing and acknowledging the issue can help both you and the person you’ve wronged feel better.
Give thanks. If you can’t seem to shake guilty feelings, even though you know you haven’t done something wrong, then try replacing your guilt with gratitude, Fuller advises. “For example, if you have a chronic illness or condition like arthritis, you may need more support than a healthy person. But that doesn’t mean you should feel bad about it. Thanking people and acknowledging the help you receive goes a long way toward reducing your burden on others – because they’ll feel appreciated – as well as reducing your own guilt.”