We all regret having done something to hurt someone, which may leave you wondering to yourself “Oh why did I say that?” “What must they be thinking” “I hope I didn’t upset them”.
It may also be guilt about what you ate, drank, said, or thought. You may feel that you went against the grain of what it is to be a loving or honest person. It may be because you were emotionally immature at the time, selfish, lacked self-control, let your anger get the best of you or thought the person deserved it somehow.
Now you are burdened with a guilty conscience and feel undeserving, regretful and even punished.
So, What is a Guilty Conscience?
A guilty conscience is punishing, sometimes brutal. This may cause you not to be able to look the person you have hurt in the eye. You may begin to avoid this person, thinking there is nothing you can do to make amends. It sometimes becomes less about how you hurt them, and more about how hurt and ashamed you feel inside.
Why Do We Have a Conscience?
Having a conscience is actually a good thing, for without it, you would be a heartless sociopath – someone who breaks the rules of society and has little regard for anyone.
Your conscience can be rational; understanding that you are after all a human who make mistakes, lose your cool or neglect someone you love from time to time. It can also be irrational, striving for perfection, ridiculing and punishing.
We tend to judge our actions based on how much we love ourselves, and by how much we depend on the approval of others. When we have a healthy conscience, we value good, consider the well-being of others as well as our own, can differentiate between good and bad, and make choices that are for the greater good of all.
A moral compass is set early in childhood; when as a child, if you did something to hurt someone else, you were likely scolded or even punished by your parents whose job it was to instill in you a sense of right and wrong.
Now that you are growing into adulthood, you have an internalized parent – your acquired conscience – that either rewards or punishes you. Sometimes it judges you too harshly and you find yourself feeling guilty for even the smallest mistakes.
How Do You Deal With a Guilty Conscience?
1. When you can make amends, do just that.
If you have really done something that hurt someone and you haven’t yet apologised and tried to make amends, rather than swimming in guilt, do the most loving thing for yourself and the person you hurt by making amends.
If it is as simple as a sincere apology, it will take a load off your chest to say the one thing that may redeem you in the eyes of the person you hurt. If the harm you caused was huge and the remedy involves some form of compensation, ask how you might make up for their loss. In this way, you clear the slate for your redemption.
2. Does what you feel guilty about pass the test of reason?
As an example, maybe a friend broke off a relationship soon after you mentioned you saw his or her mate flirting. Or you bought something you thought you liked but now, the price you paid for it doesn’t seem reasonable or you don’t like it as much anymore. Now you can’t look your friend in the eye, or what you bought without blaming yourself.
You can’t change the past! Look at the positive aspect of it. Because all the time you waste wishing you could change the past builds up more negative energy.
The burden of guilt now rests on your shoulders, because you put it there. Most often, this tendency in an individual arises because they believe they MUST be punished for every mistake they make, as this is the ONLY way to prevent a repeat. It may be helpful to speak with a compassionate and trustworthy person who can help you deal with your guilt.
3. Have you forgiven yourself?
Forgiveness is also important in order for you to move on, and should be done as often as possible. You may often relate forgiveness as something that involves others, however it’s equally important that you are able to forgive yourself.
The relief you get from simply letting go of your personal mistakes is extremely powerful and the more you do this, the better you will get at it. When you carry around burdens, you are punishing only yourself and that only makes you feel worse.
What you have done matters, but who you are and what you do next matters more. No one is perfect, and it’s good to know that one has a conscience, is learning from previous mistakes, and working hard not to repeat them.
But when guilt consumes your thinking and overrides your love for self, you may be suffering beyond the scope of what is reasonable. If you have done what you can to make up for your mistakes, and learned from your them, give yourself the credit you deserve. Let go and live!