If guilt is tearing you up inside, try inflicting some pain on yourself. It sounds weird, but research suggests it’ll make you feel better. A study published in Psychological Science found that people’s feelings of guilt are reduced after they experience pain.
Volunteers were either asked to write about a time they had ostracized someone, to prime their feelings of guilt, or a routine event in their lives. They were then asked to stick their hand in a bucket of water and to keep it there as long as they could; the bucket contained ice water for some and soothing warm water for others. Afterwards, all volunteers rated their experienced pain and feelings of guilt. Results showed that people who felt guilty subjected themselves to more pain (kept their hand in the ice water bucket longer) and rated the experience as more painful than the control groups. Furthermore, experiencing pain was found to reduce their feelings of guilt.
Researchers explain that we tend to associate pain with justice, as a form of punishment. So when we’re feeling bad about an immoral act we committed, experiencing pain makes us feel like we have rebalanced the scales of justice and, therefore, it resolves our guilt.
Bastian B, Jetten J, & Fasoli F (2011). Cleansing the soul by hurting the flesh: the guilt-reducing effect of pain. Psychological science, 22 (3), 334-5