Photo: Vladimir Melnikov/iStock/360/Thinkstock
Somehow, even in a culture that values forgiveness, guilt isn't so easy to erase. If you have done something you are deeply ashamed of or guilty about, your feelings lie somewhere on the following scale: I did a terrible thing; I have a terrible secret; Someone made me feel that I am a terrible person; or, I am a terrible person.
These statements are mixed together in our psyche, and getting them straight is the key to forgiving yourself. Doing a bad thing is not the same as being a bad person. Imagine a small child who is caught taking cookies from the cookie jar, and her mother scolds her. If the child is young enough, she can't separate "I did a bad thing" from "I am bad." And since the one who is making her feel guilty is her mother, the guilt that results comes with absolute authority. (This is one reason some psychologists claim that the gods and goddesses are actually stand-ins for our parents—they make us feel small, weak and vulnerable by comparison.)
As an adult, let's say you do something that by your standards is a guilty action. You cheated on your income tax or on your spouse; you faked a job resume or got a good friend into trouble. You can't forgive yourself by simply putting the bad action in proportion and moving on.
So what to do? The most effective ways to rid yourself of guilt are the following:
1. Confess to an authority figure and ask for their forgiveness.
2. Perform an act of atonement.
3. Pray for divine forgiveness.
4. Perform a ritual of contrition and appeasement.
It's often pointed out how psychologically effective the Catholic confessional proves to be (all four approaches to erasing guilt are included). But the effectiveness of these steps diminishes if you don't have deep faith. Even if you have no religious faith at all, the key to forgiving yourself remains the same: You must believe that you have been forgiven.
In most cases, living with guilt is far worse than going to the person you have wronged, confessing your misdeed and asking to be forgiven. Even if they say no, you have brought your guilty secret to light, and that's a major step.