How to Stop Feeling Guilty and Ashamed About What You Did
Whether it was last summer or 20 years ago, it’s time to learn how to stop feeling guilty and ashamed of yourself, what you did, or how you reacted to someone or something. These tips are inspired by a reader who really wants to help others deal with guilt and shame…but she feels like she’s not good enough because of what she did in the past.
“My heart goes out to anyone that have experienced any form of abuse,” says Charlie on What to Do When You Were Raped and Your Boyfriend Can’t Cope. “I was abused when I was younger. I only told two people. I always felt like something happened to me when I was younger, but I can’t remember anything before age 7. I never told my mom that when I was younger different males put their hands on me, hit me, and said demeaning things to me. I was afraid. I was completely ignorant of the fact it was a form of sexual harassment and abuse. My mother only knows about my father hitting and punishing me and my siblings. I experienced abuse, and I abused others. But now, I want to help people who gone through abuse, difficult childhoods, and brokenness. Am I good enough to help anyone recover from the pain of abuse?”
Here’s a summary of how I responded to Charlie’s comment:
“My husband and I were talking about “forgiveness of others” versus “self-forgiveness” just last night! Did you know that it is harder to forgive ourselves that it is to forgive others? When we hurt or abuse others, we cause them pain…and we can’t erase or heal their pain. This makes it more difficult to know how to stop feeling guilty and ashamed about what we did. But when somebody hurts us it’s easier to forgive them. Why? Perhaps because we can heal, grow, and even find the good in the pain. But when we hurt others, we don’t necessarily know how their healing process is unfolding. We only see the pain we caused, not the beauty that God grows from the pain.”
If you want to learn how to stop feeling guilty and ashamed, you’ve come to the right place! Below, I share more of Charlie’s comments and my thoughts for everyone who is recovering from feelings of guilt and shame. She doesn’t just want to deal with her guilt and shame – she wants to help other people recover from abuse they experienced. The problem is that she doesn’t feel like she’s “good enough” to be helpful to others.
Do you feel the same way about what you did? Now, you can take one more step towards forgiving yourself and letting go of the guilt and shame you feel.
How to Stop Feeling Guilty and Ashamed
It doesn’t matter what you did. It’s done, it’s over, and you can’t change the past. (easier said than done, right? I know.). But now you must learn how to forgive yourself. Why? Because you want to live in freedom and joy, silly! And that’s what you were created for: a life that is free, grace-filled, and joyful.
Self-forgiveness is complicated, but it’s not a lifelong process (contrary to what I wrote in 7 Practical Ways to Forgive Yourself for Past Mistakes! I now know from personal experience that self-forgiveness can be a long process, but it isn’t a lifelong project).
Learn as much as you can about forgiveness
Author of How to Forgive…When You Don’t Feel Like It June Hunt has a great explanation of the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation.
Here, I’ll summarize what it means to forgive yourself for what you did – and how self-forgiveness will help you stop feeling guilty and ashamed.
When you forgive yourself, you focus on what you did. Self-forgiveness doesn’t require the person you hurt to forgive you – though research does show that making amends for what you did will help you forgive yourself. Self-forgiveness goes one way: from you to you. It changes how you think about yourself. Self-forgiveness is a gift you give yourself out of love, grace, and compassion.
And, if you’re a believer, self-forgiveness is a requirement! God long ago forgave you for what you did. Your tight grip on your guilt and shame is actually a sin against Him.
- Focuses on the offense.
- Requires only one person.
- Is not necessarily reciprocal.
- Is the choice to release the offender.
- Involves a change in thinking about the offender.
- Is a free gift to the one who has broken trust.
- Is unconditional, regardless of a lack of repentance.
- Is extended even if it has never ever been earned back.
- Needs no relationship at all with the offender.
Have you forgiven yourself for what you did? I can’t take you through the journey of self-forgiveness here, but it is crucial if you want to stop feeling guilty and ashamed of yourself. Here, I’m simply showing you how important it is to forgive yourself.
Notice the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation
If you want to know how to stop feeling guilty and ashamed of what you did, you need to be reconciled to your self.
Reconciliation with yourself is different than forgiving yourself. You need to both forgive yourself and be reconciled to yourself if you want to recover from those feelings of guilt and shame.
Reconciliation focuses on the relationship you have with yourself or the person you hurt. Most “forgiveness experts” say that reconciliation requires at least two people – but here, I’m talking about reconciliation of yourself to yourself. This means you need to rebuild your relationship with yourself if you want to stop feeling guilty and ashamed of what you did.
Reconciliation changes your thoughts about yourself and your behavior toward yourself. Reconciliation is a restored relationship with yourself – and it is earned. This means you need to do some work to restore trust in yourself.
Reconciliation with yourself (or others):
- Focuses on the relationship.
- Requires at least two people.
- Has to be reciprocal, directed two-ways.
- Is the choice to rejoin the offender in a relationship.
- Involves a change in behavior by the offender.
- Is a restored relationship based on trust that is rebuilt.
- Offered to the offender because it has been earned.
- Is conditional, based on repentance.
- Necessitates an agreed-upon relationship.
When Jesus was nailed to the cross, he forgave the perpetrators. But was he reconciled to them? Not that we’re aware of (though he did spend a few weeks here on earth after he was resurrected, so who knows how he spent his time! I certainly don’t). But Jesus – for me as a believer – perfectly summarizes the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation.
Gain courage and strength from others who are working through their guilt and shame
“I experienced abuse as a child but I have also abused others,” says Charlie. “I’ve been carrying shame and guilt. I know God has forgiven me, but my younger days replay in my mind over and over again.”
We all carry the pain and regret of our past mistakes and experiences. We all feel the heavy black burden of guilt and shame.
“Many people are held back because of a mistake they made in years past,” writes Brian Tracy in Kiss That Frog! 12 Great Ways to Turn Negatives into Positives in Your Life and Work. “Perhaps they did something wicked, brainless, or cruel when they were growing up. Perhaps they hurt someone in an early relationship. Perhaps they did something that caused a good deal of pain, cost, and unhappiness to someone in work or business.”
You hurt someone, and you are here because you feel remorse and regret. You feel unhappy and burdened. You want to learn how to stop feeling guilty and ashamed of yourself. Your guilt and shame are holding you back from rising to fulfill your complete potential. Your feelings of shame and guilt can make you feel that you don’t deserve good things in life, and can cause you to sabotage your own success. Feeling guilty and ashamed about what you did are weaknesses that will hold you back.
See how your guilt and shame is holding you back
“I want to help people who have gone through abuse, difficult childhoods, and brokenness,” Charlie says. “But I feel trapped, I can’t stop feeling guilty and ashamed about what I did. It sounds confusing to be be victimized then hurt others. I didn’t know I was doing. I have noticed a pattern with the type of people I attract into my life — I tend to be drawn towards abused and broken-hearted people.”
We are our own worst enemies! Nudged by the deceiver, of course. The deceiver is the liar (Satan) who is telling you that you are no good, worthless, and bad because of what you did. The deceiver wants to steal your self-forgiveness and joy, wants to keep you trapped in your guilt and shame so you don’t heal and move forward. The deceiver wants you to be guilty and ashamed so you don’t help others, so you don’t experience the freedom and joy and life that God offers.
You are normal, and your feelings of guilt and shame are a normal response to the past abuse you experienced, as well as the abuse you perpetrated on others.
Find ways to forgive yourself so you stop feeling guilty and ashamed
Taking time and making the effort to forgive yourself is how you will rebuild your relationship with yourself (and God). This is the only way you will stop feeling guilty and ashamed about what you did. You need to restore your relationship with yourself, and learn how to love yourself for who you are – regardless of what you did in the past.
Here’s how I did it: I joined a home group through my church that was studying a workbook called Forming: Changed by Grace. This is a Bible study by David Takle that lasted for 12 weeks. Every session combined a short video, small group discussion, and quiet journaling time. Takle asked questions that we had to journal about. One of the questions was “How does God see you?”
That question changed my life! It led to an experience with God that really showed me how much He loves me, cares about me, and how He sees me. I saw myself through His eyes, and this helped me forgive myself for the bad things I’ve done in the past. I saw myself as an innocent, sweet, curly-haired, joyful, innocent child who made some bad choices. I heard God tell me that this sweet little girl doesn’t have to carry around her guilt and shame anymore. And this made it much easier to forgive myself. This is how I stopped feeling guilty and ashamed of what I did.
How do you think God sees you? Take 10 minutes to write down everything that comes to mind – the good, the bad, and the ugly! Spend time absorbing His messages to you. Think about your relationship with Him. This can be extremely powerful, if you spend time actually connecting with the God who created you for a purpose and who loves you beyond all measure.
Believe that you are a new creature living a new life
“The person you are today and the person who did or said those things in the past are not the same person,” writes Tracy. “The person you are today is wiser and more experienced. The person you are today would never do what the person you were in the past did at that time. You cannot continue to punish the person you are today by constantly regretting, feeling guilty, and struggling with shame about what you did a long time ago.”
If you are a Christian believer, then you need to meditate on and rub God’s word into your heart, soul, mind and spirit! You are a new person in Jesus – and that is the gospel truth. “Therefore if anyone is in Christ [joined to Him by faith in Him as Savior], he is a new creature [reborn and renewed by the Holy Spirit]; the old things have passed away. Behold, new things have come.” 2 Corithinians 5:17.
Stop feeding your feelings of guilt and shame
“Am I good enough to help anyone who gone through this?” asks Charlie. “How can my story help others when I was a victim and I hurt others deeply? How would God use me, when I abused other people to such a deep extent? I should shut up and sit down, right? I hate to compare stories and testimonies but I feel I can’t really help others like I want to do. Do I have be on the front lines? Should I support a group or organization to show I’m passionate in helping people? Is praying, listening, and helping others here and there enough in this broken world??”
Yes, you are good enough to help others who have gone through abuse! In fact, because you have harmed other people – and you’re learning how to stop feeling guilty and ashamed about what you did – you are actually in a better position to help others. You have the perspective of both the abuser and the abused – and that is extremely valuable! That will make you a more compassionate, kind, and caring helper then all the textbook knowledge in the world.
Help Recovering From Feelings of Guilt and Shame
In Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution, Brené Brown says that walking into our stories of hurt can feel dangerous. But the process of regaining our footing in the midst of struggle is where our courage is tested and our values are forged. And this, my friends, is how we learn how to stop feeling guilty and ashamed of what we did.
Our stories of struggle can be big ones, such as the loss of a job or the end of a relationship. Our sources of pain can be smaller struggles, like a conflict with a friend or colleague. Regardless of magnitude or circumstance, the rising strong process is the same: We reckon with our emotions and get curious about what we’re feeling; we rumble with our stories until we get to a place of truth; and we live this process, every day, until it becomes a practice and creates nothing short of a revolution in our lives. Rising strong after a fall is how we cultivate wholeheartedness.
In The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are Brené Brown – who is a leading expert on shame, authenticity, and belonging – shares ten guideposts on the power of Wholehearted living.
Every day we face a barrage of images and messages from society and the media telling us who, what, and how we should be. We are led to believe that if we could only look perfect and lead perfect lives, we’d no longer feel inadequate.
Wholehearted living is a way of engaging with the world from a place of worthiness. In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brown urges us to expose and expel our insecurities in order to have the most fulfilling life possible. Wholehearted living contains courage, compassion, deliberate boundaries, and connection. In this book she offers 10 guideposts for personal introspection, which involve cultivating some positive quality, whether it be authenticity, self-compassion, or a resilient spirit, intuition, meaningful work, or laughter.
Both of these books will help you stop feeling guilty and ashamed, and start living with purpose, joy, and love. Speaking of love…if you’re struggling to love someone new because you can’t let go of the past, read How to Stop Feeling Guilty About Starting a New Relationship.
Feel free to comment below on how to stop feeling guilty and ashamed of what you did. I can’t offer advice, but I do read every comment. I encourage you to respond to other readers’ comments if you feel led, and to share your experience with self-forgiveness and reconcilation. Writing often brings clarity and insight, and can help you process your feelings.