Everyone does something wrong at some point in life. And everyone feels guilty about their mistakes sometimes. Whether it’s a major blunder or a careless mistake, the most important thing is to learn from it and move on. Feeling guilty after a car accident is very common.
Sometimes it may even affect those who didn’t cause the accident in the first place.
But guilt is a strong emotion and is really hard to cut loose from.
That’s especially true if your mistakes led to something as serious as an accident. Let’s talk about guilt after a car accident and what you can do about it.
Why We Feel Guilty After a Car Accident
Some people are more prone to feeling guilty than others. But interestingly, neuroscience research suggests that guilt activates our neural reward circuits, much like pride does.
Dr Alex Korb, author of The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, explains how this works:
“Despite their differences, pride, shame, and guilt all activate similar neural circuits, including the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, amygdala, insula, and the nucleus accumbens.”
“Interestingly, pride is the most powerful of these emotions at triggering activity in these regions — except in the nucleus accumbens, where guilt and shame win out.”
“This explains why it can be so appealing to heap guilt and shame on ourselves — they’re activating the brain’s reward center.”Alex Korb, PhD
This stimulation of the brain’s reward center may explain why we’re so prone to feeling guilty after a car accident.
There’s some major drawbacks to guilt though. First of all, we operate from the mistaken belief that feeling guilty somehow improves our behavior.
Neuroscience indicates heaping guilt upon ourselves doesn’t increase our good behavior, it just makes us more prone to feel guilt.
Secondly, we tend to magnify our self-punishment far beyond what’s actually appropriate. We beat ourselves up past the point where it’s productive — often to the point where it just becomes an exercise in self-flagellation.
Guilt over our bad behavior can easily escalate into the belief that we, ourselves, are bad people that are rotten to the core.
Guilt vs Remorse
Broadly speaking, guilt — especially extreme guilt — is a condemnation of ourselves as being fundamentally flawed.
It’s the idea that there’s something wrong with us as people, and that perhaps we deserve to suffer due to some indefinable deficiency in our character. This is really a form of shame.
Shame is a sense of regret or responsibility that relates to the character of the self. And it’s almost always way out of proportion to our supposed wrongs.
Shame says “I’m a bad person” in a way that can never be fixed, and is always doomed to failure. This type of guilt may require therapy to address properly.
Remorse is when we feel bad about something we’ve done, not about who we are. It turns out remorse is far more useful than guilt in helping us to correct our mistakes.
That’s because remorse allows for the possibility of us taking action to fix the bad things we’ve done, or imagined we’ve done.
Remorse is generally healthy because it lets us see where we’ve done wrong and then correct those wrongs.
Like most mental health issues, chronic feelings of guilt don’t tend to get better on their own. If you’re suffering from long-term guilt, you need to seek out treatment for it.
Be fairer towards yourself and move on from excessive feelings of guilt with the help of hypnosis.
How to Stop Feeling Guilt After An Accident
Accept that you’re not a bad person
The first step to overcoming your car accident guilt is to accept you’re not bad. That’s true even if you caused the accident.
You’ve done something wrong, yes. But doing a wrong thing doesn’t make you wrong as a person. It doesn’t mean you’re fundamentally flawed, or that there’s something wrong with you.
Remember that we all make mistakes, and that you are not your actions.
Stop “magnifying” your guilt
You may be sentencing yourself to punishment via your guilt far beyond what’s actually rational or appropriate.
Rational punishment for wrongdoing is always time-limited and appropriate to the wrong. “Let the punishment fit the crime,” as the old adage goes.
You don’t get 20 years in prison for a parking ticket. That would be insane!
How long are you going to punish yourself over a car accident? Was the accident even your fault?
In Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, author David D. Burns explains guilt magnification:
“What sentence will you choose to impose on yourself? Are you willing to stop suffering and making yourself miserable when your sentence has expired?”
“This would at least be a responsible way to punish yourself because it would be time-limited.”
“More often than not, the belief that you are bad contributes to the “bad” behavior.”
“Change and learning occur most readily when you (a) recognize that an error has occurred and (b) develop a strategy for correcting the problem.”
“An attitude of self-love and relaxation facilitates this, whereas guilt often interferes.”David D. Burns
More Ways to Quit Feeling Guilty After An Accident
We tend to think our behavior improves when we punish ourselves. Science says this is not true.
As I mentioned above, punishing ourselves simply sets us up to punish ourselves more.
Being compassionate towards the self reduces depression and anxiety, and leaves us more relaxed and better able to accept — and learn from — our mistakes.
If appropriate, contact the other people involved in the accident and apologize for your part in it.
Remember to apologize for what they think you did wrong, not for what you think you did wrong.
Apologies really do make a difference, and many people actually prefer them over monetary compensation.
Ask yourself “What can I learn from this?”
We don’t become better people by torturing ourselves for our mistakes.
We become better by learning from our mistakes, and learning to not repeat the same ones over and over.
Feeling guilty after a car accident is common — and normal. But there are better ways to handle car accidents than incessantly beating ourselves up for an honest mistake.
Namely, keeping our guilt in perspective, learning from our mistake, forgiving ourselves, and then moving on with our lives.