Letting Go of Guilt and Anxiety

The past and the future are two things we have no control over. Yes, we are affected by things that have happened in the past and the things we do today can have a bearing on future events. However, we cannot change the past, nor can we predict the future. We should not allow ourselves to feel stress and worry about past and future events. Too often we let guilt over past actions and anxiety over future ones control our lives and prevent us from living a healthy, happy present.

Guilt

Guilt is an emotion or feeling that we experience in the present and may continue to feel into the future about something that occurred in the past. It is a negative feeling that causes us to feel stress and worry about past events. Guilt can lead to unhealthy conditions, mentally, emotionally and physically. The problem with guilt is that we worry about things for which we have absolutely no control. Whatever happened in the past is over. We cannot change it. Therefore, guilt is non-productive and is not needed.

That does not mean we should not feel bad about having done bad things. Remorse is a healthy, positive emotion that we can experience after having done something wrong. When we do something wrong, remorse helps us realize that we did wrong and enables us to commit to becoming a better person and avoid doing the same bad thing again in the future. We do not need to dwell on remorse or punish ourselves for the wrong action through ongoing guilt.

Guilt does not help us correct bad behavior. It is a way for us to punish ourselves for things we have done in the past. Guilt is not healthy and can cause far more problems for us. The best thing we can do is release any feelings of guilt and strive to be happy now.

We cause much of our guilt by our lack of self-love and self-acceptance. We think “I did this bad thing, so I must be a bad person.” We hold onto the guilt to punish ourselves, to prevent our happiness because we believe we don’t deserve to be happy.

The truth is we are not our mistakes, our choices or our actions. We are not wicked people who did immoral things. We are inherently good people, who make mistakes and sometimes do bad things.

A positive way to handle feelings of guilt is to feel remorse for having done something inappropriate, to commit to trying to do better, and to love and accept ourselves for who we are. Release the guilt.

Here is a practical example.

When I was young, during a game of “combat football,” another player, wearing boots, kicked me hard across the shins, while I ran at full-speed with the ball. I crashed to the ground, head first and rolled to a painful stop. I jumped up, adrenaline pumping, anger flaring and went after the offending player. Fortunately, I was restrained, but I screamed a racial epithet at him.

It was completely out of character for me. I had never used that word to refer to another person before. I immediately felt remorse. I apologized to him and everyone on the team. I swore to myself that I would never again use the word, but beyond that, I purged myself of the underlying feeling that lay somewhere inside me that said he and I were different in the first place.

Over the years, I have often thought back to that event. I always feel a pang of remorse and I reinforce my commitment.

Here is another example:

I have a friend who has been married three times. His first two marriages failed because he cheated. He was a habitual cheater. He knew he couldn’t be faithful; he often said things like, “It’s who I am,” or “I can’t help it, because I’m just wired that way,” or “I’m a horrible person.” He also felt strong and continuous guilt. He stressed out about it all the time. The guilt made him hate himself, and that made him angry all the time. In the end, it actually caused him to cheat more. He was never happy, no matter how much he cheated. His health declined from the stress and worry over his guilt.

Then, he got some counseling and came to understand, cheating was not who he was. He was a good person, but he did a bad thing. He accepted himself and loved himself, in spite of his mistakes. He knew that what he had done was wrong, but it did not define him. He committed to working hard not to repeat his past mistakes. He forgave himself. He felt remorse, but he released the guilt.

His health improved. He became happy. He accepted himself as a flawed person, who makes mistakes. He was able to win back his first wife, and they remarried. He continues to have help deal with his personal struggles, but he lives his life open, honestly and without the unnecessary burden of guilt.

Guilt doesn’t solve problems. It doesn’t prevent us from doing bad things. It only punishes us and causes us not to be able to be happy. Releasing guilt does not lead to immoral behavior or bad choices, because we still feel remorse and know right from wrong. Releasing guilt only allows us to consciously accept us for who we are while freeing us to love ourselves and be happy.

Anxiety

Have you ever sat and worried about things to come? Have you ever felt dread or stress about what may or may not happen in the future. Maybe you have to do a presentation at work, and you worry about “what if they don’t like it?” or “what if I forget what I’m supposed to say?” or other potential problems.

Can we predict the future? Can we know what will or will not happen? No, we cannot. Just like we cannot change the things in our past and therefore do not need to feel and dwell on guilt, we cannot predict the things in the future and should not feel anxiety about what may or may not happen.

That doesn’t mean we should not plan for and prepare for the future, including possible outcomes. That is an essential part of being prepared. But, there is a difference between considering what could happen and being stressed out over it.

Let’s take the previous example, doing a presentation for work. It is perfectly acceptable to think about what to do if you forget what to say. That gives you an opportunity to plan what to do if that happens. However, that should be done free from stress, worry, and anxiety about it happening. Thinking about what could go wrong in the future, planning for it and being prepared is good. Worrying about what could go wrong is pointless and causes you undue stress and prevents you from being happy now.

Understand, we cannot predict the future. However, if we rationally look at our lives and think about all those horrible, dire circumstances, we obsess over, how many of them actually ever happen? Generally speaking, they don’t. They are irrational fears and irrational anxiety. You are fine.

Much of this type of anxiety comes from our feelings of unworthiness. We feel we do not deserve to be happy and we can’t possibly be good enough for things to go well or in our favor. That’s just not true. We are worthy, and we all deserve happiness.

Consider realistic future outcomes. Prepare and plan for how to deal with them. But realize the future is not in our hands, and we cannot control it. Believe you are a good person and that you deserve to be happy. Walk forward into the future without anxiety.

Conclusion

We are inherently good people, trying to be happy and not cause harm to others. It is healthy to feel remorse over things that happened in the past and to plan and prepare for potential things that could occur in the future. It is useless and harmful to worry and dwell on feelings of guilt and anxiety. Instead, let them go and strive to be happy now, loving and accepting ourselves.

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