Release Unhealthy Guilt, and Embrace Yourself

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Codependent No More" by Melody Beattie. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why is it necessary to release your unhealthy guilt? How can holding on to your guilt hurt you?

According to Melody Beattie in her book Codependent No More, codependents’ low self-esteem is usually caused by impossible standards and unhealthy guilt. You need to release those standards and guilt to truly love yourself.

Here’s why your guilt is holding you back from self-love.

Release Your Guilt

Healthy guilt prompts change and growth, while unhealthy guilt just lingers and causes pain and anxiety, Beattie clarifies. Thoughts and feelings trigger unhealthy guilt, rather than actions. For example, you feel unhealthy guilt over being angry, even if you don’t react to your anger in any negative ways. Feeling guilty for your anger is pointless, as you handled the emotion in a healthy way.

In cases of unhealthy guilt, the codependent’s tendency to give so much of themself without receiving anything in return is a form of self-punishment. You feel the need to atone for your very existence, so you help others as much as possible and refuse the help of others.

Beattie is adamant that who you are is good, and you deserve a life free from guilt. Your problems and mistakes do not define you, and you shouldn’t be plagued by guilt over them. And while it isn’t your fault that you have low self-esteem, so you shouldn’t feel guilty about that either, is it your responsibility to work toward healing.

(Shortform note: The best way to live a guilt-free life is to focus on the present rather than the past, determine what values are important to you, and develop a growth mindset, as discussed previously.)

Guilt, Shame, and Self-Punishment

Research supports Beattie’s idea that healthy guilt prompts change, while unhealthy guilt just hurts. This is because healthy guilt is directed at actions, while unhealthy guilt attacks your self-esteem. Brené Brown refers to this as “shame” in Daring Greatly. She argues that shame is counterproductive because it damages your idea of self, which makes you less confident and less likely to change in the future. If you think you’re doomed to be a bad person, you’re not going to try to change.

Shame often leads to punishing yourself through denying yourself good things, speaking negatively about yourself, or self-harm. Usually this happens because you feel like you’ve done something wrong and you take the responsibility to correct yourself. When motivated by healthy guilt, this is a good thing. When motivated by shame, however, this response becomes unhealthy: You punish yourself excessively and further internalize the idea that you’re a bad person.

To overpower shame, redirect your self-punishing thoughts to ones of self-love. Remember that everyone makes mistakes and you’ll do better next time. If you can, make amends to the wronged person. Finally, consider what acts of kindness you can do for yourself. This will retrain your brain to practice self-love rather than wallowing in shame.

Embrace Yourself

How can you heal from unhealthy guilt and embrace yourself? Remember that all you can be is yourself, and all you can do is your best, Beattie says. Let go of the impossible standard of perfection: it’s only once you’ve embraced yourself as you are that you can grow as a person.

Beattie maintains that your worth is your own, just like your actions. It doesn’t depend on others’ behavior or acceptance. You are still worthwhile if someone rejects you. The way others treat you is a reflection on them and their situations, not you.

(Shortform note: While there are certainly times this is true, it isn’t always the case. In Chapter 2 we talked about mirroring, where people will mimic your behavior toward them. Hold people responsible for their actions, but monitor your own behavior to see how they might be reflecting off you.)

Beattie concludes that how you feel about yourself changes how you act and how others see you. If you believe you are funny, charming, or beautiful, other people will too. This isn’t a trick or a way to fool other people into thinking you’re something you’re not. Loving yourself means living authentically. You’ve always had humor, charm, and beauty inside of you: now you’re learning to let them shine.

Healthy Striving vs. Perfectionism and Self-Loathing

Research supports Beattie’s suggestions that letting go of perfectionistic behavior is part of healing. Brown argues that perfectionism is a defense mechanism against shame. You seek approval externally and believe you can reach perfection if you try hard enough. Doing things perfectly is the source of your emotional security and self-worth. When you fail to meet your impossible standards, you feel worthless.

The cure to perfectionism is “healthy striving,” the practice of setting reasonable goals based on your wants and needs rather than external validation. Meeting these reasonable goals will arguably help you to believe in yourself.

There are three major ideas underpinning healthy striving:

1. Focus on what you learn and how you grow during the process rather than just the goal. This will let you find meaning in the experience, even if you don’t meet your goal perfectly.
2. Assign goals and standards for yourself in a sequential, step-by-step format. This will let you experience success and will keep you from getting overwhelmed.
3. Ask yourself, “What is the worst that could happen if I don’t succeed perfectly?” Consider how realistic this is and what more likely options are.

Healthy striving can also help you decide how to present yourself to other people. For example, you could wake up half an hour earlier so you can do your hair rather than rushing. The goal is not to change who you are, but to strive to be your best.
Release Unhealthy Guilt, and Embrace Yourself

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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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