Overcoming Guilt and Experiencing Freedom

[Please note: The views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of BayNVC as a whole.]

Letting Go of Resentments Towards Yourself
We have all done something that we regret or feel guilt about. Guilt is not a bad thing. It is an alarm going off telling us that we did something that may not have been in alignment with our value system. If we pay attention to guilt and work through it we can get to a better place – change.

The problem occurs when guilt turns into shame. Shame is the result of not dealing with our guilt. When we don’t work out our guilt we allow the thing we did to define us. With shame comes a lot of self-judgment and should statements. We start beating ourselves up.

So how do we get out of this trap?

Identifying Should Statements
If we are feeling guilt or shame it is beneficial to identify the should statements we are telling ourselves. For instance, if someone is consistently late they may be telling themselves, “I should be more responsible” or “I should respect other people’s time.”

I would recommend writing down all the should statements and then circling the one that speaks the most to your situation. Once you do this then focus on trying to identify what needs of yours were not met by what you did. This is not easy because most of us do not have a needs vocabulary. I encourage you to click here if you would like to work on this step to discover what needs may have not been met. I think, at first, it is better to use the list instead of trying to discover unmet needs on your own.

Meditating On Unmet Needs
After discovering the unmet needs, write down how you feel as you reflect on these unmet needs. I encourage you to read the needs out loud first and take a deep breath after you read each one. When you are done write down how you feel at that moment. For a feeling list to look at click here. Sometimes your mind may wander and you will start focusing on “should” statements again. Try to go back to the needs.

If you choose feelings like sadness, regret, remorse, disappointment, and sorrow you are on the right track. This sadness is what Marshall Rosenberg calls a “sweet pain” because it leads to change.

Identifying Positive Motivations
Next it is beneficial to focus on what need you were trying to meet when you chose to do what you did. For instance, if someone was late they may have been trying to meet their need for rest if they slept in. Or maybe they were helping someone so they were meeting a need to support others.

What was your positive motivation?

In nonviolent communication the belief is that every action we make is an attempt to meet a need. These needs are always positive. The strategies we choose for meeting them, though, may be tragic. Again look at the needs list. Write down the needs you were trying to meet by what you did and then say them out loud and take a deep breath after saying each one. Now write down how you feel at that moment. Here is your chance to empathize with the part of you that made the choice to do what you did. This step will help you let go of resentment towards yourself. In some cases you may discover that what you did was the best choice you could make. Here you will discover if you had false guilt. But even if you do find that you regret what you did, this step lets you understand why you made the choice.

Make An Agreement with Yourself
Now the last step is to write down a decision or agreement with yourself of what you will do in the future. This is especially important when you regret what you did. By doing these steps you should be able to let go of your resentment towards yourself and start moving toward a positive direction. This process that has been described here is called mourning (allowing yourself to feel your emotions and validate them and your needs and then move towards meeting them) in nonviolent communication.

If for some reason you do not experience a shift and still feel guilt or shame, you may want to get some help with this process from a nonviolent communication trainer or life coach. They may be able to help you through the process. You may also want to check out the book Graduating From Guilt by Holly Michelle Eckert. She uses a similar process with her clients in workshops and gives various examples of people who go through the process in her book.


Eddie Zacapa is the founder of Life Enriching Communication, a certified trainer with The Center for Nonviolent Communication (CNVC) and the author of Principles and Practices of Nonviolence: 30 Meditations for Practicing Compassion and Essentials for Cultivating Passionate Volunteers and Leaders. Eddie provides nonviolent communication training to organizations and has worked in the domestic violence field for 20 years dedicating his life to ending the cycle of violence. He and his wife also work with couples and individuals who want to strengthen their relationships with others. You can visit his website at www.harmonyoftheheart.com.