Do you ever find yourself overcome by a sense of regret? Humans can feel regret over commissions and omissions. But I have noticed that people use the term 'regret' to attenuate or dilute the intensity of feelings of guilt. Guilt is hard to bear. Feelings of guilt often lead to self-contempt. When we experience feelings of guilt we make assumptions about ourself and try to link the feeling to circumstances where we offended loved ones, broke moral codes or societal conventions.
However, we often do not consider that guilt has several sources and can arise, for example, from not meeting our potential - from the life in us still unlived or unrealized. This is called existential guilt - guilt that arises from the very act of being. Because of our limited lifespan, we can never fully actualize our potential. Living consciously demands that we understand this and question the validity and origins of feelings of guilt. Existential guilt should be used to propel us forward in life, not to weigh us down.
If you feel guilty because you really have committed an actual 'offense', make amends where possible and then let it go. A feeling of guilt is sent by the organism as a prompt to action. We need to take responsibility for our actions - make amends - apologize - and if we cannot right the wrong, our work is to forgive ourselves for our offense.
There is a difference between real guilt, neurotic guilt and existential guilt. Real guilt elicits appropriate pangs of conscience. Neurotic guilt is often a diversion from other deeper, more threatening feelings. Existential guilt most often arises from what we have left undone in our life. And again, all feelings of guilt arise as prompts to action. Act to correct the state of affairs and let go of the guilt.
Wallowing in guilt can be dangerous. On an unconscious level guilt always demands punishment. If you nurse a feeling of guilt you will, sooner or later, find a way to punish yourself for your 'guilt'. Invariably the punishment we mete out upon ourselves exceeds the 'crime'. Pay attention to feelings of guilt. Assess whether it is real guilt, neurotic guilt or existential guilt - and where you can make amends, correct the wrong, apologize, seek forgiveness, change your path - do so. Then let it go. If you don't let go of guilt your internal judge and tribunal will pronounce a verdict and hand down a sentence. Accidents, illness, failures, losses can be a form of punishment (sentence) orchestrated by an internal, unconscious tribunal. This can be avoided if one takes time to assess and address lingering feelings of guilt.
Often adults who were abused as children take on the guilt of their parents as if it were their own. It is as if the parent is a sort of god to the child, and the child would rather take on the guilt than think of their parent/god as weak, evil, broken or unworthy. Ask yourself if the guilt you carry is really your own. Children are NOT guilty for what was done to them.
(If the abuse was of a sexual nature, one can feel guilt because they experienced pleasurable feelings from the experience. One must remember that the human body is wired to experience pleasure from sexual stimulation. Physical pleasure may be experienced even in the worst of circumstances simply because nerve-endings are wired to experience pleasure when touched. It does NOT mean that the child was complicit in, or a guilty party in the event. It is the abuser who must bear the guilt. If you have not already done so, you need to educate your inner child about these facts and relieve the inner child and your adult self of any lingering, inappropriate, unjustified guilt.)
If the guilt about not realizing your potential (existential guilt) has merit, take the guilt as a message (prompt) from yourself to yourself and do what you can NOW to create a meaningful, satisfying life. Sometimes this can be as simple as reassessing unrealistic expectations for one's life. Then go of the guilt. Guilt implies 'badness', and it does no one any good to walk around feeling they are guilty, bad, inferior. Healthy guilt is a signal to correct a wrong or to attend to unmet needs or unmet potential. Do the work guilt prompts, then let go of the guilt.