Quick question: In the photo above, which path would you like to walk down; A, B, or C? Well, that's pretty much a no-brainer, right? Unless you're just trying to stroke your ego to claim that you've taken a path that no one else has taken, B is the only obvious choice, because it's the only obvious path. Put that in the back of your mind for just a moment.
In the recent past, I posted a couple self-help messages. The first, "The Point of Vectors," emphasized how, at each moment, we have the opportunity to choose the narrative of who we actually are, as opposed to who we were. The second, "Good Guilt," explained that we should use guilt only as a way to learn, and then, after we have learned, we should move on; not letting our past mistakes define our present selves.
That's not the way it's supposed to be. So what's going on with these detrimental "do loops?'
Your brain is an incredible interpreting, predicting, and learning machine, but it's also a complicated chemical, biological, and electrical system. Because of this complexity, there could be a myriad of possible causes of these chronic cycles. However, in most cases, there are a number of simple steps you can take to change the chain of guilt.
Remember the path choices in the beginning? In a way, your brain makes the same type of choices. Often thought-about topics create well traveled paths (relatively large, healthy pockets of neurons), which in turn promote frequent thinking about those same topics. It's a self-strengthening cycle, and often that's a good thing; promoting "second-nature" learned behaviors; like driving a car, for example. However, sometimes it's not so good; limiting our perspectives or, as we are focusing on here, looping a painful past path. These pathways figuratively get so wide and well trodden, that unless there is some strong compartmentalization going on (like how "car driving" thoughts are only activated when you are in a car or thinking of travel), all sorts of even-loosely affiliated thoughts and stimuli can trigger the brain to "walk" down that same looped path again. And that brings us to:
7 Mind Hacks to Let Go of Guilt
Above I said "change the chain of guilt" as opposed to the cliche chain alteration: "break." That was intentional. There isn't an instant or overnight solution to this problem. Heck, how many of us have had a song stuck in our head that has absolutely no emotional investment in thinking of it? If we can't get rid of silly songs, how much more of a problem we would expect to have with our over-processed guilt?
Yet, little by little, we can taper off the travels along those painful paths. We can change the intensity of the mental processing spent on our past issues. And, just like how a well traveled trail will be reclaimed by nature if left unused long enough, leaving only trace evidence of its former history, so, too, can the neural pathways of our guilt wane into faint scars of past lessons we have learned.
Disclaimers and Notes: I'm not a psychologist. This is largely based on what I've learned through my years. Consult a therapist if necessary. Not every technique will work for you. In fact, I expect most will seem to work only in a limited sense at first. Continued practice of techniques should make them work better, so you may want to commit to a week to a month of a technique before dismissing it.
The following is ONLY for guilt that you feel you have adequately learned from, and so it no longer serves a purpose.
- Know that it's OK: What you did may not be OK in your eyes, and that's probably part of why you feel guilty, but what I mean is that it is OK to think about it. Guilt is healthy. Or at least it can be if you learn from it. Now that you've learned from it, it is time to let it go, but it is still OK to think about it. This may seem counter-intuitive, but you do not want to try and suppress your guilty thoughts. Doing so is actually counter-productive. The goal here is to let the guilt fade naturally, just like path through the woods will become slowly overgrown with disuse.
- Breathe: When you have that bit of should-be-let-go-guilt hijack your thoughts, pause for just a moment and take five to ten deep breaths, focusing on your inhaling and exhaling. Then, if your mind happens to drift back to you guilty thoughts, that's OK. If it is persistent, or just as strong as before, try the breath exercise again. This trick works in a few ways:
- Deep breaths help to relax you, easing the associate stress that may crop up when thinking of your guilt.
- Deep breaths increase oxygen in the blood supply, and that additional oxygen can help other channels of thought to open naturally.
- The temporary interruption can reduce the intensity of the guilty thought. In our trail analogy, this is the difference between simply walking down the trail versus using a machete to clear the brush along the path while you walk. So the goal here is to help this neural channel shrink naturally, and reducing the intensity helps that process along.
- Schedule a time: This is another counter-intuitive trick. Schedule a time to think about your guilt, say maybe every Saturday morning at 10 AM for ten to fifteen minutes. As opposed to suppression, you engage the guilty thoughts head-on. Now, you may be wondering how this is going to help let the guilt fade naturally when you are actively thinking about it. Well, this is how: Anytime you recognize that your guilty thoughts have started throughout the week, just say to yourself that you will think about that at your scheduled time and then work to change your thoughts to something else.
This is unique because it captures some of the short-term (and usually short-lived) benefits of suppression, and yet, because you have committed to think about it, this approach does not leave the "pressure" of your guilt building in the background unresolved, which could later sneak up on you in even worse manifestations as would be the case in actual suppression. To further distance yourself from the drawbacks of suppression, you should not be "actively on the lookout" for your guilty thoughts. Instead, just when you happen to notice them on your own pace, take the action to tell yourself that you will think on them later, and don't forget to follow through with your schedule.
As for the exact interval and duration of your schedule, adjust it to where you are at in your healing. If you think about your guilt on a daily basis, maybe start with an every-other-day schedule. If it's a rather a handful of times a month, schedule a monthly thought session. Etc.
- Exercise: Exercise is a powerful, powerful tool. Regular exercise can help you in so many ways that there is too much to go over about it here. And that doesn't necessarily mean grunting and groaning while lifting chucks of stupid iron. Just walking around for a half hour or so is great. So do it already!
But in the context of our guilty thoughts, exercise can help both generally and acutely. The general aspects are more nebulous, so let's talk about the acute affects.
When you notice that you are having guilty thoughts, do some sort of exercise as soon as you notice them. Naturally, you may be limited depending on the situation you are in, like if you are at work when you have these thoughts, so it is good to know of exercises that you can do in nearly any situation, like "Dynamic Tension." However, the more complex the exercise the better. For example, if you are coordinated enough, balance on one leg while reaching down like you are picking up an invisible object off the floor, or lay down on the floor and then try to get up with the aid of just one of your arms.
When you do this, do not specifically try to stop thinking about your guilt, but don't actively try to think of it either. Just be passive about it, like thoughts you have just before falling asleep. What sometimes happens is that you will stop thinking about your guilt naturally as your brain shifts to focus on the mechanical execution of the exercise. Or, if it doesn't stop thinking about it, the intensity will be greatly reduced because of the shared focus. Just like with the breathing technique above, this kind of drop in the intensity will help the natural healing pattern of this neural pathway.
- Claim it: The premise is this: let yourself know what you already know. You are done with this guilt. This can be done:
- Silently... When you notice your guilty thoughts, mentally tell yourself that you have already processed this guilt and that you are done with it. Other than that, do nothing. If the thoughts continue on for a little while after making that claim, it's OK. Don't make an active attempt to stop them. The disruption by telling yourself what you already know is good enough. And the next time you notice the guilty thought arise, make note again that you are done with it. Repeat as necessary, and eventually the idea of being done with processing that guilt may sink in for you.
- Out loud... Thinking things is one thing, but saying them and hearing them takes it to another level of effectiveness because you are thereby stimulating multiple parts of your brain simultaneously to tell you this message that you already know.
- Physically... This is yet another layer of sophistication you can use, one that capitalizes on other parts of your brain's learned behavior. When you are telling yourself that you are done processing this guilty, physically move your hands as if you were balling up a piece of paper that holds your guilt, and then move them in a pattern as though you were throwing away that balled up paper. Thinking, saying, hearing, and acting out the disposal of these particular guilty thoughts may help train your brain to recognize what you already knew.
- Play it out: This method draws on one of the classic psychological treatments: role play. But this has a slight twist to it. Role play is usually used to resolve an issue with a particular person. And if your guilt is because of wronging someone, perhaps you do need to make peace with them. Role play can be a safe way to do that, but that's not what I am talking about here.
Instead, in my experience, it seems that lingering guilt is often associated with unique events and situations. With other forms of guilt that you do release, often you have the chance to actively go through the same scenario again and again. For example, if you accidentally cut someone off in traffic, every time you change lanes thereafter, you then have the opportunity to show that you have learned your lesson. Therefore, this guilt becomes resolved.
But our greatest guilts are usually one-time occurrences, and so we don't have the chance to actively demonstrate that we have learned our lesson. Without that chance for demonstration and feedback, the guilt may remain unresolved, so we may continue to beat ourselves up about it because we can't prove to ourselves that we've gotten better.
So try this out; once a day, or maybe once every other day, or at whatever frequency seems appropriate to you, play out an imaginary scenario in your mind which is similar to but different than the one that has caused all the guilt. However, this time, at the critical point where you made your mistake, play out the scenario in your mind according to what you have learned now. Do the right thing, the thing that you would do now if you could go back and change it all. Each time you imagine it, paint the details a little differently if possible, but preserve the critical components. These repeated mental simulations may help your brain realize that you have learned your lesson now. In that way, this guilt will be diffused and resolved, just like the guilt of other mistakes you've made and learned from through the years.
- Change it: This is a new tool in the kit, and I'm not sure it will really work. However, a recent psychological study has proven that recalling memories actually alters them. They can be made stronger. They can also be changed, including the addition of completely fictitious elements. And yet your brain may not know the difference between what was real and what is now remembered. So here is the plan:
Similar to the "play it out" technique above, imagine the scenario which is the origin of your guilt, only this time imagine the exact details as you remember them as opposed to creating a similar situation. However, as you loop through the memory, intentionally change it. Not all of it. In fact, you would want your change to be minimal so that your brain still recognizes it as your memory. The goal here is to let your memory evolve. Make little adaptations over time, progressing them a little bit further each session you remember until eventually you have a scenario where you are free of any self-blame.
This may seem like lying to yourself, and it is, sort of. I've seen people lie to themselves and distort their memories at the drop of a hat. But this is a little different because, while that type of lying is a form of denial, in this case you are approaching this strategy because you have the exact opposite of denial going on. You are remembering what happened and beating compulsively yourself up with it beyond what is healthy. Now that you've learned your lesson, it's time to move on, and this is just one way to do that.
As far as what changes you make in your memory, that will naturally be highly dependent on what your exact memory was to start with. But taking a simple case where you said something that you now deeply regret, try changing one word at a time during each session of remembering the event. Maybe you remove a word. Maybe you change a word out for one with a similar meaning, but one that is less harsh. Slowly, slowly drive these changes as far as is necessary until the memory is no longer hindering you and then stop.
You've learned from the guilt. You are wiser now than you were back then. That's OK. We're allowed to get smarter, just as we're allowed to make mistakes. So I wish you the best of luck with working through your guilt, and fully recognizing that you are who you are based on what you will do, not what you have done.