Not Guilty: Four Ways End the Self-Blame Game

Shoulda. Woulda. Coulda. These are three phrases that can haunt us for decades after any decision, great or small. For many people who divorce, feelings of regret and guilt can be overwhelming. Some might rue the marriage altogether, while others may feel pangs of remorse for having initiated the split.

How can you find relief from post-divorce guilt? Psychologist Jeffery S. Nevid believes it’s time to make a clean start. “Adopt the frame of mind that ‘what’s done is done,’ that there’s no turning back the clock to undo mistakes of the past,” says Nevid in his blog for Psychology Today. “The best remedy for guilt is to take effective action in the present to correct past mistakes by righting any wrongs and preventing future mistakes from repeating themselves.”

Here are four ways to leave guilt behind:

  1. Hit Pause on Self-Doubt: First, learn to set aside the negative self-talk and blame. “We are the architects of our guilt and our other emotions, including anxiety, worry, anger, and sadness,” Nevid says. “You make yourself feel guilty by what you say to yourself about your own behavior.” Beating yourself up over actions that cannot be undone will not change the outcome. When feelings of guilt arise, see them for what they are: feelings. Acknowledge that you are sad about the situation, and then focus on a healthy decision or action you have made — or will make. (See #2).
  2. Make Amends: Twelve Step programs are built around taking responsibility for one’s actions in order to replace harmful impulses with healthy ones. Making amends is a way to end the play-loop of guilt, shame and blame by taking action to correct whatever it is you’ve done wrong. Amends are not apologies. Rather, you are amending your behavior in order to live in accordance with your principles. For example, if you feel bad because you cheated on your ex, examine the reasons why you acted on your impulses. Seek professional help with a therapist or counselor to uncover the reasons why you made that choice to be unfaithful so you can avoid it in future relationships. Your ex may never forgive you, but by sincerely making amends, you can forgive yourself.
  3. Don’t Make It Personal. Not only can we feel guilty about our own actions, we can also take on guilt for the actions of others. “Personalizing the misfortunes of others is one of the primary sources of guilt,” Nevid says. “The parent automatically feels guilty for the son’s alcohol or drug problems. The husband feels he bears responsibility for his wife’s chronic depression.” In truth, we cannot control the actions of others and there are always many mitigating factors that come into play in a person’s life. It’s healthier to “recognize that other people’s problems reflect many influences and causes having nothing to do with you,” advises Nevid.
  4. Quit the Blame Game. When we’re hurting emotionally it’s easy to want to blame someone for our pain. If we could only pin this problem on someone else, then we would feel better! But in truth, whether blaming yourself or another person, attaching guilt won’t change the past. Blame only serves to blind you from seeking your responsibility in the matter. Instead, focus on actions you can take now to make your life (and the lives of your family) happier and more harmonious.