How to Use Guilt to Your Advantage

How do I deal with guilt?’ is a common question I hear from women who are struggling in their relationship and trying to decide whether to stay or go.

A lot of my clients say things like, “Sometimes I feel guilty [or bad] for wanting to leave.” or “I’m feeling unfulfilled and unsatisfied in my marriage, but guilt and obligation motivate me to stay.”

Guilt is one of the worst feelings ever, and none of us likes it! And yet many of us find ourselves paralyzed by its spell and then feel deprived of the love, joy and peace that we desire.

The good news is, you can actually use guilt to your advantage, rather than to your detriment. And if you’re willing to learn how, something good can come from these not-so-fun guilt trips! 

Using Guilt as a Teacher
A wise person once said, “Guilt can either hold you back from growing, or it can show you what you need to shift in your life.” ~ Author unknown

You’re probably already aware of how it holds you back from growing. But are you aware of how it can show you what you need to shift in your life?

For illustrative purposes, I’ll share my own personal experience…

When I was in my early 20’s, I met and eventually married a man who I ended up staying with for 13 years. Even though part of me knew from the very beginning that it was an unhealthy relationship (he started lying to me before our 2nd date!), I felt bad/guilty whenever I thought about leaving him.

I was also insecure back then, and didn’t know my own value. So I was afraid I might not find someone better, and that fear had me thinking that I better make the most of what I did have.

We ‘fell for each other’ fast and moved in together within months of meeting. The lying continued, the fights escalated, and we kept fueling the fire of unhealthy patterns.

By this time, I had already been taught – like many of us have – that relationships are hard and you have to do what it takes to make them work (thank God I later learned that that doesn’t mean you have to abandon yourself in the process!).

So I took the few things we did have in common, and the moments of fun we did have, and latched onto them in hopes of somehow making the relationship better.

I kept telling myself things like, ‘Maybe if I could help him feel more loved he wouldn’t feel the need to lie to me. He says he lies because he doesn’t want me to be upset…maybe that’s a good thing. If I leave him, doesn’t that mean that I’m giving up on him and our relationship? That makes me feel guilty.’

Those were some of the self-sabotaging and guilt-ridden thoughts I had going through my head on a regular basis, and they kept me stuck in a relationship I didn’t want to be in for a long time. Those feelings of guilt kept me from growing.

Now here’s the good part. What I learned from that experience (and others)  – and what I continue to apply whenever I start to feel bad about something – is that feelings of guilt are showing me what I need to shift in my life.

If I’m feeling bad about something that I’m doing (or not doing), or how I’m feeling, that means I’m somehow out of integrity with myself. I’m most likely either saying one thing, but doing another…or I’m not following through on something I know I need to do in order to make my situation better.

Examples of Guilt and How to Use it to Your Advantage
Let’s use some of examples of how guilt might be showing up in your relationship, and what it may be trying to show you.

I’m unhappy, but…
Maybe you say you’re unhappy, and you know you need to talk with your partner about it, but you continue to avoid the conversations.

You might be feeling guilty because you’re not being honest with him. Or you might be feeling guilty because you’re not following through on something you know you need to do. You’re avoiding it because it makes you uncomfortable.

What this may be showing you – the shift that needs to be made – is that you need to be willing to have momentary discomfort (the difficult conversation) in order to break through your cycle of unhappiness. Of course you don’t know what the results of the conversation are going to be, but isn’t your happiness worth finding out?

I’m bored so I think I’ll find fun elsewhere…
Maybe you’re feeling unfulfilled or bored in your marriage, so instead of working on that ‘problem’, you create another problem by having an affair.

That affair might have its moments of fun and excitement, but it always leaves you with a feeling of guilt because that’s not really what you stand for…it’s not who you want to be.

What this may be showing you – the shift that needs to be made – is that you need to be honest with yourself and your partner about the lack of connection in your marriage…and either do something to change that, or be willing to gracefully let go of a relationship that you no longer want to be in.

And of course you’ll want to do your best before leaving your relationship so you don’t feel guilty about it later!

I made a commitment to God, so…
And my third and final example is one I’ve heard from a number of women about what God thinks.

Maybe you went into your relationship with feelings of mutual love, honesty and respect, but that somehow shifted as time went on. Now you and your partner don’t treat each other so well – or maybe it’s one-sided – but you made a commitment to God that you’d stay married no matter what…’til death do us part.

So now you feel guilty for even thinking about leaving because ‘that’s just wrong!’ (this is what I hear, not what I think). Now, I can’t speak for God (none of us can), but I feel more than confident that God wants our relationships to be loving.

And a loving relationship includes mutual honesty and respect. A loving relationship does not mean that you sacrifice yourself and the quality of your life in the name of love. That doesn’t make sense, and if that’s your belief, I respectfully challenge you to re-examine it.

What this form of guilt may be showing you – the shift that needs to be made – is that you need to look at your beliefs and see if they feel right for you. Your beliefs shouldn’t be based on what someone else believes and what they told you to believe. Your beliefs should be created by you and add quality to your life, not take it away!

If You’re Feeling Guilty, Ask Yourself These Questions
There are many other examples of guilt I could share, but I believe those three do a good job of providing multiple scenarios and what they may be trying to teach you.

So! If you’re feeling guilty about something, ask yourself why you feel guilty about it? And then ask yourself if the reason is influenced by personal belief, or by societal conditioning.

If it’s influenced by personal belief, what can you do to change your actions? What can you do stay in integrity with your choices so guilt won’t even have room to creep in? If you’re not doing something ‘wrong’, you have no reason to feel guilty.

If the guilt is influenced by what other people think, I strongly encourage you to stop letting other people dictate how you live your life.

You are in the driver’s seat of your life, but if you’re looking in the rear-view mirror the whole time (your past) – or letting someone else drive for you – your life will feel like a series of crash-and-burns.

Guilt is the Antithesis to Joy and Peace of Mind
Guilt is the antithesis to joy and peace of mind, and that’s why it feels so shitty. We’re not meant to feel guilty, so when we do, it’s a clear sign that something needs to change!

After so many weeks, months or years of feeling unfulfilled and unsatisfied in a relationship (or a job, or a home, etc.), it’s perfectly natural to start thinking about the idea of leaving.

And if you continue to stay in a relationship you don’t want to be in and you feel guilty for wanting to leave, of course this is going to cause pain! It’s a double-whammy of damned if I stay, damned if I go.

So what can you do to change this painful pattern? You can turn it into a powerful perception and use that power to transform the pattern into something good!

You can either improve the dynamics of the relationship and make it a relationship you love being in. Or, if after trying your best, it’s just not working, you can learn how to gracefully let go of a relationship that no longer serves its purpose.

When you are in integrity with your highest good, there is nothing to feel guilty about. And in my next mindful message, we’ll dive deeper into this subject by elaborating on this awesome quote by M.H. McKee: “Wisdom is knowing the right path to take…Integrity is taking it.”

Stay tuned for more mindful messages and other valuable resources – giving you helpful insights, tips and exercises to improve the quality of your life and relationships!

With love and support,

Catherine Dietz
Healthy Relationship Coach

P.S. If you’re having a hard time with guilt and want to break free from this vicious cycle, a Relationship Breakthrough Session can help. Just click here for more details and to schedule a time to talk, and you’ll soon be on your way to feeling better.