Even though clinging to guilt doesn’t do us any good, we continue to dwell on our mistakes and beat ourselves up for a mistake we made days or even years prior. Why do we do this?
I believe the reason we are reluctant to let our guilt go is because we are so focused on improving that we forget to move and make real changes.
As an engineering student at BYU, I mentally wince when I get a math problem wrong. First, I feel guilty about messing up on the problem. Then I berate myself for making the mistake. Lastly, I mentally recommit not to make that mistake ever again. Now, this process may succeed in preventing me from repeating the same mistake, but I often find that during the little heart-to-heart chat with my inner self, my calculus teacher has already finished explaining the next math problem and I have just missed it.
Why did I have to worry so much about missing one problem? Instead of agonizing for so long, I should have acknowledged my mistake and moved on so I could still understand the rest of the lecture.
In these small everyday cases, dwelling on guilt often serves as a distraction. This is because we are so focused on reproaching ourselves that we miss opportunities for growth. For example, when I have acted selfishly, I have found my first reaction to be berating myself for a time, which does me no good. If instead I simply acknowledge my guilt and move on, then I could start trying to atone for my mistake immediately.
Big, difficult cases of dwelling in guilt are different. In these situations, the guilt runs deep and clinging to it can lead to complete paralysis. We have done something so terrible it is hard for others to forgive our transgression and it seems nearly impossible to even begin to forgive ourselves.
We shouldn’t ignore these feelings, as they are real and poignant, and we must choose to let them go. Only then can we start to fix the mess we caused. If we do not let go, we will remain paralyzed, frozen in shock and regret what we have done.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t allow ourselves to ever feel guilty. Guilt is natural and performs a healthy purpose: It reminds us that we made a mistake and we need to change. Yet, we aren’t meant to hold on to our grief indefinitely.
If we cling to our guilt and abide in our mistakes past their allotted time, then we are being counterproductive. Our good intention of correcting a mistake becomes something else entirely. It morphs into a deterrent to growth, which is the exact opposite of what we are trying to achieve.
We are our own worst enemies. We stunt our own growth in our zeal to correct ourselves. To change, we need to acknowledge our guilt by truly feeling it for a moment, and then move on and begin to change. If we do this, we will find joy and we will grow far better than we ever would have through our suffering.