Getting Rid of Your Guilty Conscience Once and for All

Note: This is the 5th post in a series about the 7 Laws of Living a Life on Your Terms. Links to the first 4 posts are at the bottom of this post. 

The Many Faces of Guilt

Guilt is the only human emotion that requires our consent to thrive (with the possible exception of jealousy).

To feel guilt, not only do we have to earn it, but we also have to accept it.

It’s anger, disappointment, or shame in ourselves for something we did or didn’t do.

Real guilt comes from failing your own expectations for yourself.

Real guilt needs our permission to exist.

It’s sneaky and brilliant and invisible.

Guilt, like jealousy, will eat you from the inside out.

But instead of completely destroying you, it will leave you a mangled and unrecognizable mess of a human being.

It’s the worst kind of self-induced punishment, and it’s the most evil form of manipulation.

That’s why we have to guard ourselves against it. Good people are all too susceptible to feeling guilt for things they have no business feeling guilty about.

I’ll give you a personal example from my own life.

My father left me when I was 4.

He was kind of around and kind of not around. I never really got to know him.

I’m approaching thirty now and my mom still expects me to love him.

At first I felt really guilty because I wasn’t able to. I just couldn’t.

I knew he was my dad and we had some great first years together (not that I can remember), but I just couldn’t love him no matter how hard I tried.

I felt like a terrible person.

I felt guilty for not loving my dad. Then I felt angry at my mom for making me feel guilty. Then I felt guilty for being angry at my mom.

I was forced to really think about why I was feeling guilty about something I felt so right about.

I wasn’t failing my own expectations, so it couldn’t be real guilt. It must have been something else.

Years later I realized that the guilt I felt for not living up to my mothers expectations was actually resentment at having those expectations placed on me in the first place.

I didn’t deserve to feel guilty and he didn’t deserve my love.

Not all parents earn the love of their children. He wasn’t there to pick me up from school, take care of me when I was sick, yell at me when I misbehaved, sit at every doctor’s appointment with me like my mom was.

I wish all of the time that I could know what a father-daughter bond feels like, but I can’t.

Does it make me sad? Definitely.

Do I feel guilty? Not anymore.

And I’m not any less of a person for it.

The Anatomy of Guilt

Sometimes we know when we feel guilty, and sometimes the guilt is hidden in our psyche. Here are a few ways to tell if you, or someone else is feeling guilty:

  1. When you think about something you did or didn’t do, you feel like crap.
  2. You feel like you need to rationalize or justify your behavior, even when you weren’t asked to.
  3. You argue and get defensive when anyone talks about the behavior or action.
  4. When you think about your behavior, it’s painful.
  5. When you think about the behavior, you dislike yourself.

Knowing that you feel guilty doesn’t mean that you should actually be feeling guilty.

Many of our parents guilted us when we were children. Their intentions were good, but the result became an adult incapable of distinguishing between their values and the values of another.

This is important, because the only thing that matters is your relationship with yourself and your own values.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • By whose standards are you judging?
  • If the standards are yours, why do you believe in these standards? Are you sure they are your beliefs and not someone else’s?
  • If the standards aren’t really yours, ask yourself what do you really believe about this issue?
  • What if you were 120% sure that no one would ever find out. Would you still feel guilty?

The Relationship Between Guilt & Self-Esteem

Guilt is poisonous to your self-esteem.

The entire definition of guilt centers around berating yourself and punishing yourself for something you did/didn’t do.

Whether or not the guilt is real, it still leads to a loss of integrity.

You lose face with yourself, dislike yourself, feel pain, hate yourself.

In order for your self-esteem to remain healthy, you must address any lingering guilts you have.

Either cut off foggy guilts (below) or emancipate yourself from real guilt (below).

To live with guilt is to live with cancer and refuse treatment. The only result is death.

Foggy Guilt

In the example with my dad, I was suffering from Foggy Guilt.

It’s a different emotion disguised as guilt because we’re afraid to confront the real emotion at hand.

The vast majority of our guilt is Foggy Guilt. 

Not surprisingly, most of our guilt comes from the people we love – when they don’t approve of something or reproach us for our behavior.

Sometimes we’re intimidated by the values of others, so we feel guilty and sacrifice our self-esteem to placate them (leading to guilt).

Then there are times when you feel guilty because you’ve failed to live up to the expectations of someone else. You’ve disappointed them.

But what you’re feeling isn’t guilt. It’s anger. It’s anger at those who assumed they could place expectations on you that you didn’t believe in.

Instead of telling that person that you don’t give a rats ass what they ‘expected’ you to do, you hold it in and feel guilty because you’re afraid of confrontation.

If you feel like something is immoral, ask yourself if you really believe that, or if you’re afraid of challenging the beliefs of your loved ones.

Be willing to stand by and act on your own beliefs and convictions. To eliminate foggy guilt, you have to respect your own judgment over any one else’s. 

I know, I hear you. You’re panicking. You’re all like ‘well, wtf am I supposed to do about it then?’

Relax, I’m getting there.

If you or a loved one are suffering from foggy guilt, call this hotline: 888-Liz-Rocks, or follow the steps below.

  1. Be honest with yourself. It always starts with honesty. Get used to it.
  2. Own your anger/intimidation/fear.
  3. Admit your resentment at standards and expectations not truly your own.
  4. Watch the guilt evaporate.

If feeling guilt weren’t an option, you’d probably demand to know by what right anyone expects you to do XYZ thing. Why are you obligated to live up to the expectations of others, but leave yours in the gutter?

Asserting yourself is hard. Especially when you have to be assertive towards the people you love. Guilt is an easy way to avoid that assertion. Tweet this

You’re better than that kid. Don’t be a coward.

When You Really Mess Up

Now, there will be times when you mess up. You do something that’s against your beliefs and you feel terrible about it.

The solution is not to tell yourself that you’re an ass and you should die a horrible painful death in a pit of snakes and fire and flesh-eating bacteria (Ya. I’ve been there).

That just leads to more bad behavior. It leads to ‘well I’m a horrible person anyway so why bother’ kind of thinking.

Instead, have a little compassion. Yes, you’re wrong, but seek to understand your ways so that you never do it again. Feel remorse and regret instead of self-hatred.

Ask yourself:

  • What were the circumstances?
  • Why did you do what you did at the time?
  • What were you trying to do?
  • In what way were you trying to take care of yourself? (You acted out of self-interest, which is how you should always act unless you betray your values).

But it doesn’t end there.

That’s only the first step.

Ladies and Gentlemen of the blogosphere; I give you my 5 step plan:

  1. Understand the circumstances in which you behaved and replace that behavior with a different one so that you act with more integrity the next time.
  2. Own the fact that you did it.
  3. Acknowledge explicitly to anyone you hurt what you’ve done and tell them you understand the consequences of your behavior.
  4. Do everything you can to make amends or mitigate the harm you’ve caused.
  5. Make a firm commitment to behave differently in the future. If you don’t change, you’ll recreate self-distrust.

Guilt and compassion don’t mix.

As long as you keep thinking how horrible you are, you’re always going to feel defensive and self-protective and you’ll never be able to make amends.

Guilt is not something you should glorify in. It’s not a proper punishment. It’s a cop out.

It’s something you can hide behind so you don’t have to go through the challenge of making up for it: to yourself, and to the people you hurt.

‘I feel guilty enough already,’ should be replaced with, ‘I’m suffering so that should be enough punishment to satisfy you.’

But suffering is the easiest thing you can do.

It’s being happy that’s hard.

Because happiness requires emancipation from guilt, not the surrender to it.

Again, true to ALOYT form, I have provided you with a handy infographic as a summary of the above. (Ironically, I felt guilty for not feeling like providing an infographic for this post. I realized that I wanted to and I’d be letting myself down if I didn’t.)

The End of Your Love Affair With Guilt

Are you having a secret love affair with guilt? Are you sure? Because it’s not hard to do.

Attaching ourselves to guilt makes it easy to stay passive about our behavior: “I’m guilt ridden, I’m a disappointment, I’ve always been a failure – that’s life, can’t change it.” Which actually means “Look, I have a great reason for you never to expect anything of me. And it’s not even my fault.”

Suffering is familiar.

How would you handle life if you didn’t have your depression and self-hatred to defend you?

Who knows what people will start expecting from you, what you will start expecting from yourself?

Unhappiness provides it’s own kind of safe haven, whereas happiness is more demanding – in terms of consciousness, energy, discipline, dedication, and integrity.

It takes courage to work at liberating ourselves from guilt.

It takes honesty and perseverance and a commitment to independence – and to living consciously, authentically, responsibly, and actively.

Depending on who you are, this can take a long time. You’re afraid of changing because you built your life around self-castigation, self-denial, and self-guilt.

It’s a prison you’ve built around yourself, and it’s easy to stay captive in your own chains.

Unfortunately, the prisons we build for ourselves are the hardest to escape from. You may wonder if you even have a right to escape at all?

You have so much more good inside of you than bad. Don’t let the overwhelming feeling of guilt prevent the good from prevailing.

Escape. Use the methods above and escape. You have a right to break free from your chains.

Are you really going to let your fear of change rule your life?

There are no buts and there are no excuses that are valid enough to justify throwing the majority of your life away for fear of giving up your guilt and suffering.

You have a right to release yourself from the expectations of others and focus on your own expectations.

I understand you’re afraid, but to not try at all is inexcusable. It’s unacceptable. It’s a slap in the face of life.

I’m here to tell you that you have a right to a guilt free life.

So go and live it.

1.) The First Law of Living a Life on Your Terms: Do Work You Love

2.) The Unbeatable Guide to a Happy Life 

3.) Self-Esteem or Death? It’s Your Choice

4.) Bringing You Back From The Grave and Beyond
photo credit: noyava via photopin cc

{ 10 comments… add one }
  • Vishnu October 6, 2012, 1:55 am

    Liz and your thought-provoking posts!! lol never thought about guilt as much til I read your take on it and realized how much guilt we all carry around in our lives. That’s pretty inspiring how you turn a negative emotion like guilt and encourage a more positive take on it – by having compassion for ourselves. I didn’t realize these are two different ways to think about guilt. Or realizing there was a solution to it. Mitigating the guilt and acting differently in the future is great advice Liz!

    Getting real with our emotions and being honest with ourselves, on the other hand, might require a good therapist:) haha

    insightful post!

    • Liz October 7, 2012, 12:02 pm

      Vishnu! Thanks!

      I just feel like guilt is so toxic. To your self esteem and self worth, that it’s worth taking a look at. Guilt is necessary to let you know when you’ve deviated from your own moral compass, but it’s an emotion that shouldn’t be abused of.

      Thanks for stopping by and I’m looking forward to your next post. I believe I’ve read 10 Ways to Get Spiritual for the “Spiritual, Not Religious” Crowd around 10 times!

      Gimme more!

  • Iris October 6, 2012, 7:35 am

    I called 888-Liz-Rocks. Nobody answered. Why are you doing this to me?

    • Liz October 7, 2012, 12:02 pm

      Hahaha. <3

  • Iris October 8, 2012, 4:57 pm

    This is not funny!

  • sahitha February 5, 2013, 11:11 pm

    Hi Liz

    thank you for taking the time to write this article. It was a relief to all the painful feelings I have had , probably all of my life but never really took the chance to examine my own attitudes towards myself. I recognise this guilt inside me now very clearly and what it’s saying to me is that it’s been with me since childhood when I felt responsible for making parents happy, birth father in particular. They used to walk around feeling sorry for themselves all the time and unhappy. My biological father, in particular felt sorry for himself too often and tried to get attention and love he so missed as a child. Being a compassionate person, I internalised this and I took this upon my shoulders to make him/them happy by doing whatever I could. I thought it was my responsibility to “rescue” them.

    Clearly it was a distorted perception of a young child who did not realise that everyone is responsible for their own feelings. I realise now where my guilt comes form: at not being able to make it better for them

  • Love your enemies pray for those who despitefully use you June 12, 2013, 7:14 pm

    First I want to say that I appreciate you having this site for others to read. I think it is was very helpful in enabling me to see that guilt has good reason. Although I used to believe that I felt guilty for things that I shouldn’t feel guilty for, I now see that it is not worth it to do the things even if they are not wrong. However, I do believe that guilt should lead us to seek after God. Ask God, why do I feel guilty about something that you clearly said is o.k. God will show you it’s a heart issue. It’s the reason behind it. The guilt comes from the heart. The heart is saying don’t do this, it’s wrong. The mind is saying no it’s not, it’s not illegal, and even the bible says it’s not wrong. Well it might not be wrong, but the heart of the reason why I am doing it may be wrong. That’s why we should pray and repent. Ask God to help us not do things we feel guilty about and not worry that we are being crazy by not doing them.

  • Layla July 1, 2013, 6:49 pm

    Thankyou so so so much…. I’m still not completly guilt free but this article really helped me let go and feel better. Thankyou so much Liz!!!

  • john December 17, 2013, 11:16 am

    Thank you and God bless.


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