Guilty feelings are hard to describe but they're very recognisable when we experience them.They can come on quickly and give us a sense of deep shame and regret. These feelings can be very hard to live with. They can burden us, leaving us feeling like we are carrying a heavy load. They can stop us moving forward but keep us stuck in the ruminations of what has been. And particularly focused on what should have been.
Guilty feelings often come from a feeling that we should have done something differently. That we should not have allowed something to happen. That we should have stopped something or should have acted in a different way.
These "should" feelings often come from others and can be imposed on us. Often from a very young age when we learn "right" from "wrong". Of course when we are children these ideas can seem very black and white. Something is either right or wrong. As we get older we start to realise that the world doesn't work like that. Most things are not right or wrong. There is usually lots of grey. Lots of mitigating factors. Lots of reasons for people doing what they do - or not doing some things.
So guilty feelings can come from long established rules that govern our life. Rules that may or may not be current and applicable to our current life. Rules that can help us at times but may also burden us. Prevent us from being who we want to be, stop us from doing what we really want to do. The more burdened we are by these rules, particularly the rules imposed by others, the more likely we are to feel guilty.
Guilty feelings might not be all bad. If we never felt guilty about anything we would just behave any way we wanted and this could damage ourselves or others. So the challenge is to manage our guilty feelings. Not be hurt and burdened by our guilty feelings but to make sense of them. Ask ourselves where the guilty feelings came from. Whether they are relevant to who we are today or whether we have moved beyond a situation which may have triggered that guilt. We can ask whether the guilt is our own guilt because we genuinely feel bad about something we have done, or not done, or whether we have felt good about what we did but someone else is making us feel guilty.
Managing guilt is also about learning to accept ourselves, accepting that we will make mistakes, we are continuing to grow, we won't always get things "right". We can also remember that we can always work to repair harm, restore relationships over time. We can say we are sorry and that we understand the hurt we have caused.
Most of all we can find ways to let guilty feelings help us to learn more about ourselves, about what is important to us and those we care about and how we might want to do things differently in the future - or not.