You know that knotted feeling that’s partly in your stomach, partly in your chest, and partly in a location you just can’t name? The feeling that sticks around no matter what you try to make it go away?
Regret is a powerful, often all-consuming force. But here’s a truth you can rest on: Regret affects every person in this world. And more than just a few times! Wishing you hadn’t done or said — or that you had done or had said — something is a natural part of the human condition.
So why does it suck so bad?
First off, it can be way harder to forgive ourselves than it is to forgive others. We tend to be our own worst critics and hold ourselves to a whole different set of standards.
While forgiving yourself might sound impossible right now, with the right amount of intention and self-compassion, you can get on the path to living guilt-free. Here are 11 tips to help you get there.
If you’ve ever been told to “cheer up” or “look on the bright side,” we have satisfying news: that’s not always great advice. In fact, there’s evidence that allowing yourself to feel bad actually helps you process a negative experience.
Not only that, repressing emotions may actually make things worse. In a 2011 study, participants who bottled up their reactions while watching a disturbing movie ended up acting more aggressively than those who expressed themselves.
Journal about it
One way to help yourself feel your feelings is to write about them. Journaling is a great way to untangle emotions and help come to an understanding about an experience.
And remember, journaling is one hundred percent about the journey, not the destination. Don’t get caught up trying to write a masterpiece.
If you’ve been in the trenches of this guilt and anguish cycle for a while, you may be lacking perspective. Similar to journaling about your emotions, putting thoughts into written words can help you acknowledging what happened and mistakes that were made, ultimately helping you move forward.
For this one, though, take your emotions completely out of it (they color your experience). Just write down exactly what happened as it happened, with no judgement.
When it comes to guilt, there’s an impulse to hide our failures from others. This is an attempt at self-protection: No one can judge us if no one knows. But, similar to why you should feel your feelings, keeping our pain to ourselves may actually makes things worse.
Talking it out can be a powerful experience, if not for the simple fact of being heard and supported by another human. Having their support will make this experience less isolating.
Of course, taking that leap can be super hard. Remember, you can simply say you’re not ready to go into details, but you need their support anyway. Never underestimate the healing power of a hug or an extended Facetime date.
Feeling guilty is stressful — both on the body and mind. And as we’re sure you’ve heard by now, cortisol — aka the stress hormone — has a wide range of negative effects on the body.
One way to combat these feelings of stress is by doing things that bring you joy. Yep, we’re talking about good ole fashioned #SelfCare. Everyone’s self-care routine is different but here are some tried-and-true tips.
- Take a bath. Turn off all the lights and light a few nice smelling candles. Maybe even play one of those “sound bath” playlists on Spotify.
- Watch a movie guaranteed to make you cry while eating a bunch of tasty food. Hello, pint of ice cream.
- Do some zoom yoga. Though definitely not a cure-all, yoga has been shown to work wonders combating stress. There’s also tons of free yoga videos on YouTube.
Apologizing isn’t only the decent thing to do, it’s also an important step in moving on. According to one study, it’s actually easier to forgive ourselves once we apologize to people we’ve hurt.
Tips for apologizing
- A verbal apology is ideal, but you can also write a letter.
- Be specific. Name what you did wrong and apologize specifically for that.
- Ask them if there’s anything you can do to rectify the situation.
Word of caution: Only apologize if you really mean it. It’s OK if you need time to get there! But forcing an apology to try to feel better won’t help in the end.
This may sound like the last thing you want to do. Or maybe it sounds downright irrelevant. But hear us out, gratitude is a powerful way to heal inner wounds.
One 2018 study found people in psychotherapy who supplemented therapy sessions with gratitude journaling reported better mental health than those who didn’t.
Starting a gratitude journal is one simple way to incorporate gratitude into your everyday life.
Self-compassion is super helpful in maintaining a positive outlook and healing from past wounds. Positive self-talk can go a long way in accepting your own flaws, which this study says can help you accept flaws in others as well.
But practicing self-compassion also takes work. At first, you can just acknowledge every time you have a negative or intrusive thought related to the incident. Then, start responding to these thoughts in the same way you would respond to a friend who was going through something painful.
Create a mantra
A mantra is a grounding tool, often used in mindfulness, that can train your mind away from unhelpful thoughts. It can be something like, “You are not your past” or “You did your best.” Repeat it to yourself whenever you feel the negativity creep in.
OK, so you’ve felt your feelings, maybe you’ve journaled about the experience or called up an old friend. Now comes the rebound stage. What has this debacle taught you? How can you use this experience to your benefit?
By framing the experience as one you learned from, you can avoid making similar mistakes in the future. And if you’ve made this same mistake multiple times, rest assured that it often takes many tries to get something right.
Think back to an incident that caused you pain. You may still remember the discomfort but it probably packs much less of a punch these days.
Since patience in this form doesn’t come naturally to most of us (we want to feel better already, dangit!), you may need to take extra measures to ride out the tumult. Try checking these strategies for planning your days to avoid getting stuck in a mental loop.
Dwelling in the past often creates a sense of hopelessness and helplessness because you feel as if there’s nothing you can do about it. On the flip side, directing your attention on the future can help you re-engage with your life.
During a pandemic it can feel hard to have anything to look forward to. Here are some suggestions we’ve put together over the last few months.
Ideas to look forward to
Connecting with a therapist is never a bad idea — virtually everyone can benefit from it. And if feelings of guilt are totally consuming you, it’s imperative you seek professional help. You can read all the articles on the internet you want but nothing can substitute having a regular dialogue with a someone who is trained in these matters.
Tips for finding a therapist
- You can visit this website to find queer and trans therapists of color, which can be especially helpful if you belong to those communities.
- If budget is a concern, there are some affordable options you can look into here.
- We’ve also got some resources for finding a telepsychiatrist or teletherapist.
Though it’s easy for guilt to consume us, remember that our mistakes don’t define our lives. You’ll be able to get through whatever is bothering you and forgive yourself (especially with the help of these tips!)
Reina Sultan (she/her) is a Lebanese-American Muslim woman working on gender and conflict issues at her nine to five. Her work can also be found in Huffington Post, Rewire.News, Wear Your Voice Mag, and Rantt. Following @SultanReina on Twitter for endless hot takes and photos of her extremely cute cats.