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November 17, 2015 12:01 AM EST
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

You did something bad. And now you feel terrible. But the feeling won’t go away. It gnaws at you. Even worse, it makes you feel like you’re a bad person.

Nobody tells us how to deal with this. There certainly weren’t any classes on it in high school. But one expert has some answers to make you feel better…

David Burns, M.D., is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University Medical School and author of Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy.

That book title sounds a little “self-helpy” though, doesn’t it? Well, here’s something you don’t see often: Burns actually ran a study to determine whether his book was effective or not. Turns out it had major results.

From Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy:

Cool. So his work can help us.

Now let’s see why we feel guilt, how it works and the best way to overcome it and live happier lives…


Why Do We Feel Guilty?

As you know, being wracked with guilt is awful. So why do we feel it?

What’s crazy is that neuroscience research shows our brains actually reward us for feeling guilt.

Via The Upward Spiral:

Guilt serves a powerful social function in terms of policing our behavior.

Research published in the Harvard Business Review shows that people prone to guilt work harder and are seen as better leaders:

In fact, people who often feel guilty are better friends, lovers and employees:

And as moms around the world know, guilting people does cause them to improve their behavior:

So there’s a good reason we feel guilty. But is guilt the best feeling to have when we’ve done something wrong? Far from it.

(To learn the 4 rituals neuroscience says will make you happy, click here.)

The downsides of guilt turn out to be far worse than the benefits…

The Downsides Of Guilt

Part of the problem with guilt is that we think we should feel bad because of what we’ve done wrong. That’s a noble gesture, but research shows it’s not the best way to motivate us to act better or feel better in the future.

Via The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It:

Now I know what you might be thinking: If I don’t feel guilty, won’t I go on to do more bad things and eventually become a psychopathic axe murderer?

Nope. Forgiving yourself, not guilt, increases personal accountability.

Via The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It:

What’s really insidious about guilt is that we often feel it after things that are pleasurable (like eating unhealthy food) so, with time, we can actually associate guilt with pleasure.

And so now things that made you feel guilty are actually perceived as even more rewarding:

Ouch. Guilt makes you more attracted to behaviors that will make you feel guilty.

(To learn how to get people to like you, click here.)

So guilt’s not the best way to remedy your mistakes. So what should you do? Science has answers…


Stop “Magnifying”

You broke your diet. You insulted your friend. Bad stuff. Nobody disputes that. But should you feel bad weeks or months later?

When we’re rational about rule-breaking we set a limit. You don’t get 30 years in prison for a traffic ticket. But sometimes you sentence yourself to months or years of emotional pain over minor offenses.

From Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy:

But with guilt, we’re often irrational. How can we know if we’re being rational? Look at the intensity, duration and consequences of the negative emotions you feel. Are they appropriate? Probably not.

From Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy:

You’re magnifying the offense. Again, you probably have noble intentions. You feel you deserve to be punished. But the problem is just like fear — it can go too far.

If a hungry lion suddenly appeared, you’d be terrified. So terrified you’d probably run away. Great, fear’s doing its job. But you might get so afraid that you lock up and can’t move. This would be very bad.

Guilt’s the same. It can prevent you from fixing the situation, make you feel so bad you can’t function at 100% and even lead to more guilt-provoking bad behavior.

You’re better at fixing the mistakes you make when you recognize you did something wrong but still feel good enough about yourself to get off your butt and rectify things.

From Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy:

(To learn how to be happier and more successful, click here.)

And that leads us to the worst kind of magnification, which is all too common: feeling your bad behavior makes you a bad person. Here’s how to deal with that…


Thinking You’re A Bad Person Makes You A Bad Person

The guilt is overwhelming. You just feel that you’re rotten to the core for what you did. Guess what? That feeling makes you more likely to do bad things in the future.

As Duke professor Dan Ariely explains, believing you are a bad person leads to a slippery slope. Why resist temptation to do evil when you believe that’s your nature?

If you break your diet or give in to temptation, you might tell yourself, “I have no self-control.” Does that sound like a belief that’s going to lead to better behavior in the future? Uh, no.

From Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy:

The problem here is that emotions like guilt are so powerful that they affect your reasoning. You feel bad, so you think you must be bad.

From Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy:

But this comes from an irrational belief: “To be a good person I need to be good all the time.” Is that even remotely realistic? Hardly.

From Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy:

(To learn how to never be frustrated again, click here.)

So how do you cope with the feeling that you’re bad to the bone?


You Are Not Your Actions

Now I’m not saying you’re not responsible for your actions. You are. But you are not defined by any one bad action.

So what’s the answer here? It’s USA. (No, not the country.) Famed psychologist Albert Ellis calls it “Universal Self Acceptance.”

It’s irrational to assume you can ever truly evaluate yourself as a good or bad human being. You will never have enough information.

That “bad person” at work who torments you might be an excellent father to his kids. That other “bad person” at work who screwed up royally today? That error might later lead to a huge breakthrough.

We will never have enough info to holistically evaluate a person and score them in totality as “bad” or “good.”

So accept yourself. But realize your behaviors can be bad.

From Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy:

Guilt doesn’t help. What should fill in for it? Remorse.

Remorse is when you feel bad about what you did. Guilt is when you feel bad about who you are.

From Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy:

(To learn how to overcome regret, click here.)

So you’re not a bad person. You’ll never have enough information to make that judgment. But your behavior can be bad. Which leads us to the next issue: how do you best make amends for your mistakes and feel better?


How To Feel Better

You’ve accepted you’re not a bad person. But you did something bad.

A lot of people think they’d feel less guilty if they had more self-esteem. Wrong.

You don’t need more self-esteem. You need more self-compassion.

You’re human. You’ll screw up. Denying that is crazy. Forgiving yourself has all the benefits of self-esteem without making you a narcissist that’s out of touch with reality.

Via Self-Compassion:

Want to stop feeling like a bad person? USA is a great start and self-compassion is a great chaser. It increases your self-worth.

Via Self-Compassion:

So forgive yourself and be ready to forgive yourself in the future. You’re gonna screw up. It’s okay.

Next you’ll want to apologize if you hurt someone else.

Apologies do make a difference. Believe it or not, research shows people often prefer them over money.

What’s the most important thing to remember when apologizing?

Don’t apologize for what you think you did wrong. Apologize for what they think you did wrong.

And there’s one last step to getting past guilt: ask yourself, “What can I learn from this?”

From Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy:

Regret has a purpose. It’s like the oil light on the dashboard of your life, telling you something needs to be fixed.

So fix it. And feel better.

(To learn more about how to increase your self-compassion, click here.)

Alright, we’ve covered a lot. Let’s round it up and learn the right attitude to take to avoid those guilty feelings in the future…


Sum Up

Here’s how to stop feeling guilty:

  • Stop magnifying: Ask yourself if your self-punishment fits the crime. It probably doesn’t.
  • You are not your actions: You’re responsible for your actions but they don’t make you a bad person. Remember USA.
  • Self-compassion: Forgiving yourself makes you behave better. Thinking you’re a bad person makes you act worse.
  • Apologize: Say you’re sorry for what they think you did wrong, not what you think you did wrong.
  • Ask “What can I learn from this?”: Torturing yourself doesn’t make you a better person. Learning does.

You’ll screw up again. It will happen. But you don’t have to be tortured by guilt again. In his book, David Burns explains the best attitude to take:

Forgive yourself. Repair the damage. And move on.

You’re not a bad person. But you sometimes do bad things. You know what that makes you?


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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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