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6 Tips for Letting Go of Guilt When Mental Illness Leaves a Mark

I harbor guilt because I couldn’t save my mother from her mental illness when I was a child or what I put my 32-year-old daughter through from infancy. My former alcohol abuse swirls in my mind. And the thought of what my three children endured due to my mental illness and behavior still haunts me from time to time. And even though they’ve forgiven me, it’s still hard for me to let go. Therefore, if I could tape one word across my forehead, it would be “guilt.”

If you’ve ever experienced such guilt, you know how gut-wrenching it can be, and it gnaws at you. We feel this need to recriminate ourselves long after the incident(s) occurred, and yet why is that? It’s OK to experience some guilt because it shows that we have morals, but it’s self-punishment when we can’t let go of it. All it does is leave us stuck in a web of pain and self-loathing. So, here are some tips I’d like to offer to help release yourself of those chains.

1. Talk about it.

Many of us struggle with letting go of guilt due to faulty perceptions and distorted thinking about ourselves. Therefore, if you are having a hard time, try talking with a therapist, or if you feel comfortable enough, a mentor or trusted friend who will listen without judgment. Having someone who can be objective and look at it from an outside point of view can help you feel better about yourself.

If you choose to work with a therapist, they can help you with your thinking patterns.

2. Write it down.

Have you ever tried to figure out where your guilt originated? Did it begin in your childhood? Did someone, in particular, make you feel guilty about everything? It is essential to get to the root cause of these feelings. And again, that might be something you can address with a therapist or trusted other.

If you feel uncomfortable disclosing your feelings to anyone, journaling can be a good way of finding out its origins. And if you’re not much of a writer, maybe you can draw a timeline. Putting things down on paper can be cathartic, and reading about ourselves or events experienced might help us see something we hadn’t before.

3. Remember we are not perfect.

Many of us who struggle with guilt tend to have low self-esteem and feelings of unworthiness, and it’s like we feel this need to punish ourselves. However, nobody is perfect, and we are not the only ones who have made mistakes, and therefore, it’s what we do with that fact that is most important. So, try to remind yourself of that and live and learn.

4. Forgive yourself.

Some individuals will forgive us, and others may not, and as much as we may yearn for that, there may be circumstances where we don’t receive forgiveness. So, what do you do with that? It is essential to learn that we can’t control how others think or feel about us, but we can control how we react. Yes, forgiving oneself is often easier said than done. Still, if you have made the necessary steps to make amends for things that might have happened to you or someone else endured, there is no need to condemn yourself for the duration of your existence.

5. Watch your words.

Whether positive or negative, what we say to ourselves becomes concrete, whether aloud or in our heads. Telling ourselves that we are no good, failures, or ruin everything due to holding on to guilt is not doing ourselves any good and is like a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom. Would you talk to someone that way? If not, what makes you think it’s OK to talk to yourself like that?

Imagine a friend tells you that they are no good. Wouldn’t you want to console them and affirm that is not the case? Yet, why would you not give yourself the same grace? Therefore, try saying or writing down a daily list of your positive attributes. Even if you don’t believe it at first, you can rewire your brain through time by changing negative self-affirmations to positive ones.

6. We can change the present.

I’m sure many of us would change the past if we could. And though I’ve made many mistakes in mine, they have also been my greatest life lessons. I still carry some guilt, but I was tired of it haunting me and taking reign of my life. So, I gave up drinking and have been sober for five years, and took accountability for my behavior with my children. I also volunteer at inpatient facilities and write articles like these to help others know they are not alone. Doing for others feels good and has helped diminish a bit of the residual guilt.

Your past doesn’t have to ruin your life either. Instead, let it be a life lesson. So, live in the moment, treat yourself well, and throw that guilt away.

Getty image by Patrick Daxenbichler

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