Constantly feeling guilty gnaws at your emotional well-being and causes negativity to snowball. “It can make you feel defeated, anxious, or even depressed,” says Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD, professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. And we often beat ourselves up for no good reason, she adds: “Most of the time, we manufacture guilt in our minds simply because of the ridiculous expectations we set for ourselves.” Yank yourself out of the spiral with this three-week plan to being your own best friend.
Week 1: ID your guilt triggers
“If you can learn to pause and recognize when you feel guilt coming on, you’re halfway toward fixing the problem,” says Whitbourne. So right off the bat, get to the bottom of what makes you feel the most remorse.
Pay attention: Notice any moments you feel guilty, as well as what prompted the pangs (you missed a deadline, you spent a lot of money). It may help to take some notes, either on paper or in your smartphone.
Check the frequency: Did you get ticked at yourself each time you bought a $15 lunch this week? Do you lie in bed every night wishing you’d been more patient with your kids? Track how often specific subjects leave you regretful.
Group the majors and minors: At the end of the week, pinpoint the issues that incited guilt more than once or weighed on you more heavily than others. (You’ll deal with the lesser regrets in week three.)
Week 2: Change your perspective
“You don’t want to try to just be ‘over’ a guilt that’s coming up a lot for you,” says Whitbourne. “Pull it out, look at it and come up with some alternative interpretations.”
Envision a redo: Think (or even talk out loud) about what you wish you were doing differently—maybe you want to have a better attitude at work, or you think you should reel in your spending by creating a budget. “It doesn’t mean you have to go out and make some drastic change right this minute, but you’re talking about it, and that’s productive,” says Susie Moore, a life coach in New York City and the author of What If It Does Work Out?.
Pick a different emotion: “Guilt and sadness and anxiety are all on a continuum in a way,” says Whitbourne. “And when we’re stressed, it’s easy to be self-critical.” Try asking, “Wait, does it really make sense to be feeling guilty at this moment? Or am I letting stress get to me?”
Realize you’re human: “Perfectionism is often what drives guilt,” says Whitbourne. “At some point, you have to just accept your limitations.” Moore adds that it can even help to tell yourself, “No mom or wife or employee is doing everything flawlessly.”
Week 3: Shake off the small stuff
“To say you will never feel guilty again about something silly would be ridiculous,” says Whitbourne. “But it’s important to recognize when you may be blowing things out of proportion.” Practice short-circuiting your regret when it’s truly unnecessary.
Reframe a fail: Look at it with a practical eye. Instead of “I shouldn’t have left the office early today with my current workload,” tell yourself, “I needed to cut out in order to attend this doctor’s appointment that was long overdue.”
Laugh it off: “Humor is one of the greatest antidotes to guilt,” says Whitbourne. Poke fun at yourself: You ran out of time to bake and brought a store-bought dessert to the holiday party? How dare you even show up!
Find a silver lining: Let’s say you’re upset because you slapped together your gift wrapping this year. “Well, you also didn’t go to the department store and have them wrap it for you,” says Whitbourne. “You’re showing the person that you love them enough to put in the effort.”