Life can be stressful sometimes, but sometimes the biggest source of stress is your own mind and negative thinking. You may be quick to judge yourself, put too many demands on yourself, or have a hard time letting go of past mistakes. As a result, you can get in the way of your own joy or hold yourself back from the success and happiness you deserve. In this article, you will learn how to let go of guilt, stop regretting the past, and give up trying to be perfect. Read about simple strategies that can help you develop healthier mind habits, such as ease, self-confidence, or compassion. For each of the negative mindsets below you will learn what they are and how to combat them.
Guilt is an emotion we often learn in childhood: “Eat all your food; there are people starving in India,” or, “I’ve been working my fingers to the bone to take care of you and all you do is complain?” As adults, we internalize these messages and feel like we’re never enough or can never do enough. Guilt can be helpful when it keeps you from intentionally harming others or violating deeply-held values. Excessive guilt, however, can cripple us and take the joy out of life—not letting you enjoy the fruits of your hard work.
There are many types of guilt and research shows only one is good—guilt about something harmful that you did. If you lied to someone you care about, or acted in a selfish and hurtful way, then feeling guilt can motivate you to stop the hurtful behavior and make amends. This will likely improve your relationships and self-esteem.
Some other types of guilt are unnecessary and counterproductive:
- Guilt about not doing enough to help someone else, when you’ve already done a lot, or the other person is not taking responsibility;
- Guilt about having more money or better relationships than friends or family members;
- Guilt about thoughts that you don’t actually act on, like feeling jealous of a friend who just had a baby.
To combat unhelpful guilt, realize that your thoughts don’t hurt others—only your actions can do that. Learn from past mistakes and try to feel worthy of the gifts and good fortune life has given you.
Being a Perfectionist
Are you your own biggest critic? Is nothing you do ever good enough to meet your own standards? Perfectionism can result from a rigid mindset in which you don’t change your expectations based on the situation. It can lead to second-guessing, procrastinating, feeling constantly overwhelmed, or giving up and not trying. Perfectionism can be dangerous to your mind and body: An article in the Review of General Psychology found that perfectionists are more likely to struggle with depression or anxiety and more likely to commit suicide. Perfectionists are also more likely to be diagnosed with conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia. Perfectionists have conditional self-esteem, and can only like themselves when they do well. But nobody can do well all of the time. Perfectionists often feel like impostors or frauds and live in constant fear of being exposed.
To combat perfectionism, try the strategies below:
- Get rid of the “shoulds” and black-and-white thinking.
- Give yourself credit for trying.
- Stop seeing mistakes as a disaster.
- Give yourself time limits for getting the job done.
- Don’t allow yourself to check and re-check your work.
- Try to focus on the bigger picture and find more compassionate ways to view a situation.
Living with Regret
Regret is a negative cognitive/emotional state that involves blaming yourself for a bad outcome, feeling a sense of loss or sorrow at what might have been, or wishing you could undo a previous choice that you made. If there is an opportunity to change the situation, regret—while painful to experience—can sometimes be a helpful emotion. The pain of regret can result in refocusing and taking corrective action or pursuing a new path. If you have an addiction, regret can be a motivator to give up a harmful substance and live healthier.
The less agency you have to change a situation, however, the more likely it is that regret can turn into chronic rumination and mentally beating yourself up. Those experiencing regret replay a stressful or humiliating situation repeatedly in their heads, causing the constant release of stress chemicals like adrenalin and cortisol. This can take a toll on your body and mind.
To combat regret, use mindfulness strategies to keep your attention focused on the present moment.
As meditation teacher Jack Kornfield said:
“Each morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most.”
Despite your best efforts, negative mindsets can be stubborn and difficult to dispel. The goal is not to try to erase them, but rather to redirect your attention and energy onto more helpful and positive thoughts or activities. Neuroscience shows that the brain can change with repeated practice of new, healthy habits. So keep encouraging yourself and, over time, your thinking will change for the better.