One of the foremost causes of anxiety in my life right now is feelings of guilt. I have never really learned how to properly process guilt and deal with it in a healthy way. This creates a lot of problems for me, considering the fact that I struggle so much with moral perfectionism and scrupulosity (read more about this in One Step Closer or Sunset Revelations). It doesn’t take much to make me feel extremely guilty. This guilt creates such a heavy burden on my heart and it physically manifests into anxiety symptoms.
Earlier this morning, Ryan and I had an interaction in which I responded with rudeness and disrespect. Though I quickly realized the error of my ways and apologized, it was too late. I had already acted hurtfully towards him. Luckily for me, Ryan is an extremely loving and gracious person. But apologizing doesn’t take away your wrong actions. Even though Ryan forgave me, I could tell that he was still disappointed and hurt when he left the room.
My heart sank. My chest started to feel tight. My arms started to tingle. My guilt hit me suddenly like a tidal wave, and I was desperate to stop it. It’s in these moments that I would normally run after Ryan and follow him around with a barrage of “I’m sorrys” and pester him to “forgive me” until I could actually feel forgiven. But this approach never works for me because it is not actually about being forgiven. It’s not about me actually caring about the way that my actions hurt someone or about wanting to make it right. It’s about me looking for that person to somehow alleviate the anxiety that I am feeling. It’s about me looking for reprieve from my guilt.
When Ryan left the room this morning, I felt trapped. I couldn’t think straight and I didn’t know what to do next. Anxiety had taken over my brain and the irrational thoughts were setting in. But I decided to push through and address the issue instead of being compelled by my urge to “fix my feelings.” And as a result, I made some pretty great discoveries about how to handle my incapacitating guilt in a more productive way.
So the next time you are struck with guilty angst, here are five steps to help you navigate through the discomfort keep yourself from getting stuck in the guilt-anxiety trap!
1. Take a breather and collect your thoughts.
When you notice irrational thoughts and anxiety taking over your brain, just stop. Don’t do anything silly. Just sit down, take a few deep breaths, and ground yourself. Collect your thoughts. Ask yourself why you feel anxious. Ask yourself why you responded to the situation the way you did. Activate the logical side of your brain by answering a set of simple questions for yourself.
2. Tell yourself the truth.
Be honest with yourself about the situation. Look at the facts, and address your feelings based on what is true, rather than on what your irrational thoughts are telling you. In today’s situation, for me this meant reminding myself that Ryan truly does love me and has an abundance of grace for me. I had to remind myself that not “feeling” forgiven is my problem, not Ryan’s. My feelings were based in anxiety and not in truth.
3. Acknowledge your error and sit through the discomfort.
Sometimes your guilt may be unfounded (like I talked about in Apology Not Accepted), but other times you might do things that require some remorse. In these cases, it’s important to acknowledge the error of your ways—to yourself and to anyone else involved. Don’t just rush through the situation trying to alleviate your guilt and anxiety. Sit with the feeling of discomfort for a little while and realize that the other person is hurting too. I had to understand that my actions really hurt Ryan’s heart today. And solely focusing on my feelings and trying to get him to alleviate my anxiety would be even more hurtful to him. It would communicate that I don’t care at all about his experience. Apologies that come from that place are not genuine. I had to acknowledge the way the situation hurt him, not just the way it was affecting me.
4. Forgive yourself.
After you have had time to collect your thoughts, meditate on the truth, and acknowledge the reality of your actions, it’s time to forgive yourself. You may have made a mistake, but so does everyone else on planet earth. You are not unique in your failings. None of us are perfect, and we all mess up from time to time. It’s not going to do you any good to dwell on it. Instead, choose to forgive yourself, let it go, and learn from the experience. You will be better for it!
5. Take a step.
Finally, don’t sit around all day, stuck in your guilt. Though it may incapacitate you for a few moments, following the previous four steps should get you to a point where you feel like you can move again. So take a step. Any step! My first step today was writing this post. It helped me process my feelings and get “unstuck”. After you take that first step, whatever it may be for you, the next step will be a little bit easier and more clearly defined. My next step was talking to Ryan and giving him a genuine apology, rather than one that was motivated by anxiety and fear.
Don’t let anxiety and guilt hold you back any more. Use these five steps to address the underlying issues and to keep yourself from getting stuck in a rut.
Is there anything else you do to address guilty anxiety? Comment below and let me know what I missed!