Similar to anxiety, guilt can be good thing – on a healthy level. Guilt encourages people to have more empathy for others, to take corrective action, and to improve themselves. Self-forgiveness following guilt is essential to esteem, which is key to enjoyment of life and relationships, and living healthily.
An example of healthy guilt is a partner who lies to their significant other to do something with friends, cancelling plans with the partner. While with friends, he/she feels guilty about the lie and later admits what had actually happened. The individual who lied talks about how much he/she cares for the partner, apologizes, and asks for forgiveness. In the future, plans are made in advance and commits to the partner are kept. This partner feels confident and happier moving forward in the relationship and can self-forgive for the lie, vowing to be honest moving forward.
Unfortunately for many, self-acceptance does not occur because of unhealthy guilt, sometimes for decades or a lifetime. Using the same example as above, if this person had not accepted him/herself as a good person, despite the lie; then even if the partner forgives, this unhealthy guilt could take over. This person would think of themselves as a bad person, would feel depressed, and would cycle into a pattern of negativity. Now the low self-esteem would become a burden on the relationship because the person is always seeking reassurance. The relationship will end, and this self-negativity will continue to affect future relationships. This type of negative self-perception and inability to self-forgive may bleed negatively into all aspects of life, creating a pervasive low self-worth, and impact ability to meet any goals.
If you already have low self-esteem, or have issues around shame, it may be difficult to concentrate on what it is you feel guilty about; however, this is the necessary order to get past it. Rationalizing or brushing it under the table to avoid self-examination may create temporary relief, but you will not achieve self-forgiveness. Alternatively, beating yourself up prolongs guilt and shame and damages your self-esteem. Accepting responsibility and taking remedial action improves self-esteem.
There is no utility in holding onto guilt. Be honest with yourself, ask for forgiveness where needed, forgive yourself, and work to be the person you want and respect for the future. With this you will improve relationships, improve your own physical and emotional health, and will feel confident in moving forward to successfully meet your goals!
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