How to actually let go of guilt
Guilt is a tricky beast.
We spend a lot of time talking about how unhelpful guilt is, but I find very little out there about how to actually get past it! It's not simple to process guilt and to move on, but there are a few key strategies that will help.
Connect to common humanity
"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle." (Plato)
Step number one in letting go of guilt is recognizing the common humanity in trying to do your best. Everyone around you is just trying to do well and be happy - just like you. Guilt arises when we think there is something wrong with or bad about us. We compare ourselves to other people in our lives or to the ideal standards set up by society and think, "I'm not good enough." Or we think, "I'm the only one who thinks/feels/behaves this way."
And that is simply not true. Everyone around you is struggling in their own way. If you can tap into that reality, you can let go of some of the pressure on yourself to be perfect and know that you are just human like the rest of us.
To give it a try, print out the Plato quote and tape it onto or next to the mirror in your bathroom or put it in the text of your wake-up alarm on your phone. That way, when you wake up every morning, you will be reminded that it's only human to struggle.
As a bonus to connecting to common humanity, you can also practice the second key to letting go of guilt:
Judge others less
The kinder we are towards others, the easier it is to be kind to ourselves. If you walk around judging every little behavior (which most of us do), it's no wonder that you are also hard on yourself. Try to cultivate understanding. This means being hyper aware of the meaning we are making of other people's actions. It's one thing to note, "That mom often drops her kids off late to school." It's another thing entirely to make meaning out of that and say, "That mom doesn't have her act together and can't even manage to drop her kids off on time."
if you have to make meaning of the behavior, try to make charitable meaning of it. "That mom seems to have a difficult time in the mornings. I hope she is getting the support she needs."
This takes time and practice, but over time it can help you be kinder towards yourself, as well.
To give it a try, keep a kindness journal where you try to re-frame judgment into compassion. Even if you only write in it once a week, it will help with the shift.
Say "Thank you" instead of "sorry"
Imagine a friend who has cancelled dinner with you twice and feels terribly about other priorities coming first. How do you feel when she apologizes for the second time? I would bet money that you feel annoyed and resentful at having to forgive her. When we apologize to people, we are not only putting ourselves in a position of guilt, but we are putting the burden on them to accept our apology and, often, to assuage our guilt and tell us "It's totally fine!"
It feels a lot better for everyone involved if we take responsibility and say thank you instead of sorry. To say "Thank you for accommodating my schedule," instead of "Sorry we had to find another time." Or "It means a lot to me that I can depend on you" instead of "Sorry I'm so needy."
To give it a try, tell someone you are close to that you are trying to say "Thank you" instead of "Sorry" and have them remind you to try again when they catch you apologizing. They can just keep it simple and say, "I'm supposed to remind you to say thank you instead." Judgment-free accountability is your friend!
Let us know how it goes!
Like I said, guilt is a tricky beast and none of us can break free of it completely. But these strategies will help you get started.