We feel guilt for many reasons.
While it’s normal to feel guilt, ruminating too much over it isn’t and can turn into an emotional burden. When not dealt with properly, guilt can even take a toll on our well-being.
With that, we asked eleven experts, “How to deal with guilt?”
Let’s see what they have to say:
Table of Contents
- Take responsibility for what you can and have compassion for yourself
- Make amends; what can you do to make it right?
- Look at it as a gift, one that you got paid in advance for, then pay it forward
- Look at the experience as a lesson and forgive yourself for what you did not know
- Be realistic; look out for extreme thinking
- Look at your intentions. Recognize that your actions/behaviors are not your characters
- How is it helping anyone for you to punish yourself?
- Start a journal or a couple of journals
- If you want to work with a second journal, why not make it a self-appreciation journal?
- Write a forgiveness letter
- Is guilt an authentic emotion?
- Helpful guilt
- False guilt
- Give it a purpose
- Keep it in check
- Frequently Asked Questions
Licensed Clinical Psychologist | Nationally Recognized Relationship Expert
Take responsibility for what you can and have compassion for yourself
Look critically at what you did and the choices you made. What part of your behavior can you own? What was your contribution to the situation? What was your responsibility? Take that in and be fair about it. Ok, you made a poor choice, and you need to own that, then have compassion for yourself.
You are not responsible for knowing everything or predicting everything, so don’t hold yourself to that standard. Human beings make mistakes, sometimes big mistakes. You are not your mistake; your behavior in one moment does not epitomize your entire character.
Make amends; what can you do to make it right?
As you reflect on your behavior, think about what you can do to make things right. How can you show that you have learned from the experience and want to make up for the hurt or pain you’ve caused? Always apologize and recognize that the best apology is changed behavior.
Look at it as a gift, one that you got paid in advance for, then pay it forward
Sometimes the guilt you feel is not your fault and not due to something you did, but rather, something you survived. People who’ve survived a violent crime, such a mass shooting, feel survivor’s guilt and wonder why they were chosen to live while others died. This is such a complicated and painful emotion. What can help is to think about your surviving as a gift. It was a gift that might seem unfair and random, but it’s a gift, and now you should go out and use that gift to make the world a better place. Find ways to help others, educate others, lift others up.
Look at the experience as a lesson and forgive yourself for what you did not know
If you learn something from an experience or a choice, then it was a lesson and not a mistake. Should you feel guilty for a lesson? Not necessarily. Try to find a purpose for the experience that happened, find some good that has come from the poor choice, and forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn’t know.
Learn and commit yourself to not repeating that mistake.
Be realistic; look out for extreme thinking
Sometimes we feel guilty because we hold ourselves to nearly impossible standards. Ask yourself – can anyone be good all the time? Can good people occasionally do bad things? Can you know what will happen in the future? No one is perfect all of the time, and I’d argue that if you never make any mistakes, you’re not pushing yourself, and you’re not learning or growing.
Instead of holding yourself to an out-of-reach standard, be realistic and kind to yourself and put your misstep in perspective.
Look at your intentions. Recognize that your actions/behaviors are not your characters
Think about what you intended to happen when you made a mistake. Was your intention malicious, or was the lousy outcome an unintended consequence? Search your heart and soul; were you being selfish, dishonest, or exploitative when you made the choice you did? If so, that’s ok. Most of us act these ways from time to time, but we have to grow from the experience and commit to not repeating the mistake.
Doing something once and learning from it is appropriate, but making the same poor choice time and time again is not healthy.
How is it helping anyone for you to punish yourself?
A question to reflect on is: how is it helping anyone for you to punish yourself? If no one is benefiting, then stop. Instead, put that energy into helping others. If you feel you’ve done something wrong and you’re a “bad person,” go out and earn some “good credits” by volunteering, assisting someone in need, doing something free of charge.
Having too much guilt is having an extra tablespoon of Superego, or conscience. This evolves in a child who has been “told” too many times what to do, how to do it, and micromanaged, usually by one or both parents.
First, it is essential to note that most signs that you are uncomfortable in your own skin are felt within and not necessarily observable signs on the outside. For instance, a young girl might discount, diminish, or even feel contempt and self-hatred toward her body. Changing this deep feeling is not a simple process.
Developing body neutrality is much easier than developing a positive body self-image. Some signs you don’t feel comfortable in your own skin may include resistance to socializing; isolation; obsessive negative thoughts about your appearance, likability, and fear of rejection; and more.
The best personal (and professional) mantra I use to combat negative thinking is the reminder that the trigger issue is temporary. Dealing with anxiety-provoking daily issues can be challenging. Life always throws us a curveball with relationships and work letdowns and disappointments. Another crucial tool and life skill are developing thinking neutrality, which is much easier said than done.
Related: How to Get Rid of Negative Thoughts
What is required is re-establishing a more benign self-observing conscience or self-judge. The clinical psychology term is Superego. Some people are raised by a harshly critical mother, father, or both. When this occurs, the individual may take in, or Introject, a harsh Superego. This means the person may be extremely hard on themselves, self-judging, and self-critical.
It may be in the area of body image, intelligence, competence, attractiveness, or any area of self-functioning. Either way, it’s nearly impossible to go from harshly self-critical to super positive.
The first goal is to become a benign self-observer.
This is achieved by becoming more self-aware and noticing each time you think or feel a self-putdown. You should consider a gentle shrug-of-the-shoulders comment such as a tender, “There I go again…thinking critical thoughts!” That’s all. Don’t try to change anything and observe without judgment.
This is the first giant step toward changing toward positive thinking.
- Identify yourself and acknowledge that you are unsure.
- Partner by talking with a non-judgmental, supportive, understanding person.
- Know that you will have successes and failures.
- Expect your anxiety to temporarily rise as you take risks in decision-making and moving forward.
- Become informed before you make a decision. Do the research and find information on your own to minimize your anxiety.
- Start small. Once you have mastered little steps, you can grow from there.
- Once committed to a decision, stick to it. Do not give in to the temptation to waffle.
- Praise yourself for your courage. This is not easy, and you are brave to take this on.
- Determine whether there is a legitimate reason to panic or worry, or you are reacting before anything has gone wrong.
- Create an inner dialogue to calm and settle yourself.
- It helps tremendously to feel that your husband, friend, clergyman, or counselor understands you.
- Expect to have success in slow increments. Know that you may have a few failures mixed in with your accomplishments. That’s how it goes. Accept it and accept yourself in the process.
Energy Healer | Intuitive | Speaker | Teacher | Host, Guided Spirit Conversations Podcast | Author, My F*cking Long Journey To Loving Myself: A Guide to a Shorter Path
What is guilt?
There are many definitions of what it means, but I’ll share the Cambridge English definition:
Guilt is the fact or state of having done something wrong or committed a crime. It is also a feeling of anxiety or unhappiness that you have done something immoral or wrong, such as causing harm to another person.
I will add to the above definitions that feelings of guilt could be real or imaginative. Either way, real or imaginative, healthy guilt or unhealthy guilt, carried around energetically; in your head or heart, is a form of self-punishment. And to me, life is too short to live day each day in a self-punishing state.
I’d like to offer you a few of the TTT’s (Tips, Tools, and Techniques) from my latest book, My F*cking Long Journey To Loving Myself; A Guide to a Shorter Path that can help you work through and release any guilt that you’re carrying around:
Start a journal or a couple of journals
One journal can be for you to share and release each individual situation that may be causing you to feel guilt. Don’t question or judge what you write, (I don’t want you to add guilt to the guilt you’re already addressing).
Put in the journal every incident, what role you played, how it made you feel, and if another was involved. Add how the incident affected them. Don’t leave a detail or emotion out of each excerpt. Your journal is your sacred place, a no-judgment zone, and the place where you can safely and privately lay down your emotions to rest.
Once you feel you have divulged all the situations that had been affecting you and your self-esteem, and you are feeling complete, prepare a ritual that resonates with you then burn the book.
You may want to call in the angels of healing or say a prayer, or set an intention as part of your ritual. Get as creative as you would like. You can be solemn, or you can include the use of humor in your ceremony. This is all for you by you. How you want to move forward with releasing your guilt and your feelings about it is up to you.
You can burn the journal in a fire pit, or some other safe receptacle. Please remember to be responsible when working with fire.
If you want to work with a second journal, why not make it a self-appreciation journal?
In this book, you can write down the things you’ve done that are positive, and supportive to you and others in your life; such as your family, colleagues, and friends. This is your place to pat yourself on the back and to feel good about yourself.
I would suggest keeping this journal because it is a reflection of you, your goodness, and things about yourself and what you do for others that are to be acknowledged and commended.
When you start to doubt and question yourself and what you do to support yourself and others, you have a place where you can remind yourself of what a fantastic person you are and the many kindnesses you offer to others.
Write a forgiveness letter
I love this for its simplicity. Find a time and place that’s offers you privacy and comfort. Get a pen and some paper and get comfy. You can begin your letter like you are writing it to the person who you may have done or said something to, or to the person who did or said something to you which made you feel bad. If it’s a situation you have, then start the letter whichever way resonates with you.
Don’t leave anything out, share how and why you feel as you do. If you were at fault, apologize for what you might have said, thought or done. If someone made you feel bad, then share how his or her actions or words made you feel.
When you have completed the letter, you can do one of two things:
1) You can write a response to your message – it’s done as a form of automatic writing. You write what comes to you. Don’t question or judge and don’t fix any grammatical errors. Just keep writing until you feel complete.
2) You can just finish up the letter and call it the end.
The next phase of this letter is to now get rid of it. You can flush it down the toilet, burn it, bury it, and as you do it, set an intention that you are releasing all of the feelings and emotions you have that are attached to this letter, incident, as it flushes, burns or dirt is piled on it.
It’s your ritual, so make it yours. If you want to say a prayer, say a prayer along with setting the intention. If you want to play music and dance as it flushes or burns, dance.
The most important piece is to release it from your energetic field, your heart, and your mind so that you can be free of the burden of carrying those feelings around.
Is guilt an authentic emotion?
If we routinely supported a calm and meditative mind, guilt may not exist.
The actions of most people can be easily traced back to sincere effort, or doing the very best one can with any given situation, with what they knew at the time.
But, alas, the mind doesn’t rest, and it rarely bathes in a meditative practice. Instead, it worries. It is fostering negative thoughts while projecting fearful untruths about one’s life or the life of another.
What if real emotions were calm? What if the ego, in its accurate definition, is simply fear? What if fear is an illusion? Then guilt, a strong human experience, is mind-made, not an authentic emotion. What if we can supervise our thoughts, creating an atmosphere of self-compassion while learning a new way to be with ourselves and others?
Changing the momentum of your thoughts alleviates the shame that over-analyzing guilt creates.
Once the mind is calm, then the real story can be understood, and guilt can fade away. Many times, simply asking a positive question of oneself or a situation, can quickly shift the force of one’s thoughts.
Here are a few of my favorite questions to mitigate guilt:
- What if I’m a really good person?
- What if I’m doing the very best I can?
- What if I’m over reacting to the situation?
- What if I’m surrounded by good people who love me no matter what?
Karisma Silacci, LCSW
Maternal Mental Health, Untangled Thoughts
I feel guilty talking to you right now when I could be playing with my three-year-old. He is in no way being neglected, but my mom brain tells me that I SHOULD be spending time with him instead of working.
There are multiple different types of guilt, but the majority of the time, when someone tells me that they feel guilty about something that they did, I feel relieved because that means they feel remorse about their actions, and there is hope for them to change in the future.
Guilt can be a sign of growth and maturity. Guilt shows a small glimpse of understanding; it means that they feel somewhat responsible for their behavior and that maybe, they wished they had made a better decision.
Guilt is different than shame. Shame is when someone feels horrible about themselves as a person, instead of regretting the negative behavior they engaged in. Shame can be more profound and take more time to sort through. Dealing with guilt will vary depending on the situation.
In miscarriages, mothers often feel guilty and accept responsibility for losing their child, even when they did everything 100% proper during their pregnancy. In this situation, it is helpful to reframe mom’s thoughts from “I must have done something wrong, I’m not good enough” to “I did the best I could, and it is what it is” to help her remove the guilt and begin accepting the situation with which she has been presented.
When a mother feels guilty about punishing her child with a spanking or time out, it can be beneficial to teach her other methods of discipline to prevent the guilt, if this is a reoccurring event.
Guilt can be prevented with education and behavior modification over time. Substance abusers feel guilt AND shame, even when they get sober. They begin to feel guilty for even THINKING about getting high, and then guilt becomes a dirty word when it could be used as a path for hope and change.
LCSW & Certified Professional Coach, June Health
First and foremost, assess what the guilt is about and whether it is proportionate to the situation. Many people feel guilty, but don’t look closer to examine the emotion and what’s driving the emotion. Give yourself some time and space to journal and write down the situation or trigger, and the list of reasons why you feel guilty. Try to identify your thoughts and examine whether any patterns emerge.
After completing this exercise, ask yourself a few questions:
1. Is my emotional reaction (and the intensity) a match for this situation?
2. Are the thoughts arising accurate, or are there any exaggerations or “shoulds” “haves” arising?
3. What would a non-judgmental trusted friend or family member tell me about what I’ve written down?
Second, if after doing the exercise you’ve realized that the guilt is disproportionate to the situation and/or there are some thoughts or past beliefs that are causing the guilt to come up even when you’ve done nothing wrong, you can try a few things:
1. Offer yourself verbal assurance and validation.
2. Create a new narrative around the situation and the expectations of yourself. For example if you often put pressure on yourself to carry the workload for your whole team and you decided to go home on Friday instead, normalize your decision and try to develop a new way of looking at things (such as, we are a team, and I’m not responsible for doing everything myself. It’s okay for me to rely on them as they depend on me).
3. Use distraction to give yourself distance from the situation. This can take many different forms, whether it’s doing some vigorous exercise, reading a book, or listening to your favorite podcast
4. Talk to a trusted friend or family member. Whether you talk to them about what happened or talk about something different, it can give you a chance to get validation and focus on something different.
Third, if you do the exercise and realize that the guilt is proportionate, validate your feelings, and give yourself some space to experience your emotions.
Everyone makes mistakes, and no one is perfect. It’s important to be kind to yourself, even when you’ve done something or acted in a way you’re not proud of.
If the situation is something that can be remedied or there is a way to make amends, take action. Often taking responsibility and ownership for mistakes can go a long way, and facing the consequences can alleviate the guilt around what happened. However, if it’s something that can’t be fixed or repaired, confide in a non-judgmental friend, family member, or therapist.
Often guilty feelings increase, and people feel worse when the situations or mistakes become secrets. Talking with someone else about it can help you move past it or present a new perspective that can change the emotion over time.
Licensed Psychologist | Nationally Recognized Expert in Clinical Psychology | Author, Loving Yourself: The Mastery of Being Your Own Person
Guilt is actually a very positive emotion, unlike shame.
Guilt is an emotion that humbles us and lets us see where we may need to change something, and we feel motivated out of guilt not to repeat mistakes. If guilt is repressed and it turns to shame. Shame is an emotion in which it doesn’t matter what happens when people shame is they blame other people.
When we feel guilty, we tend to take responsibility for our behavior and make a change.
However, many people are prone to feeling guilty when they shouldn’t feel guilty, and they are living with low self-worth- feeling like they owe everybody everything and that they feel bad about everything that they do say and may have.
This is not a healthy Guilt but more of a victim/martyr perception of life that comes from low self-worth. True guilt is a motivator to be better.
Rob Magill, MA, ICAADC, CCPG, DOT-SAP, LPC
TBHI Certified Telebehavioral Health Practitioner, Magill Counseling
There are two types of guilt, and they need to be dealt with differently:
Helpful guilt is when we are acting outside of our values, beliefs, or who we want to be. For instance, if I believe stealing is wrong, but I steal, I will probably feel guilty. In this case, the guilt serves as my conscious and helps to identify ways we need to either change our behavior or our beliefs.
It is helpful to address this guilt by identifying the underlying values/beliefs/etc. that were violated, identify what in that situation we can control, and then develop a plan to better act within our values/beliefs/etc. next time.
False guilt is the guilt that we feel due to what other people say or do. When someone puts us on a “Guilt trips,” we experience false guilt. False guilt feels like helpful guilt, but our underlying values/beliefs/etc. were not impacted. A typical time people feel false guilt is when they are enforcing boundaries with others for the first time. It feels like we are not helpful/etc., but no values are actually being neglected.
When addressing false guilt, it is helpful to remember what is important, that the best decision was made, and find a way to move forward without dwelling on the past (sometimes easier said than done).
You deal with guilt with compassion.
Sometimes it is easier to give compassion to another person than it is to give it to ourselves. So to process your own guilt, sometimes it is helpful to pretend that it was someone else who did what you have guilt about and see if you think they deserve it. If so, is it forgivable? (Then, work on forgiving.) If not, then you can give yourself some compassion to let it go!
This is exponentially easier if you have a trusted friend validating and agreeing with you!
Laura F. Dabney, MD
When it comes to dealing with guilt, I often tell my clients to think about what and why they are feeling guilty about.
A lot of times, we feel guilty for normal human emotions. People come to me so often about the guilt they have about hurting/disappointing a family member when it is, in fact, their GUILT over their ANGER towards that person.
People often feel guilty for being mad at someone they love; they sometimes take on that guilt instead of dealing with the anger.
My advice is to reflect on what they feel guilty about so they can deal with the genuine emotion behind it.
Certified Mental Health Consultant, Enlightened Reality
Give it a purpose
Instead of letting guilt become a safe space for self-pity, give it a purpose. Use your guilt as a catalyst for self-development and positive change. If you feel guilty about something, that means that you’re ashamed of your behavior. This shame should cause you to realize that you won’t repeat your actions. Giving your guilt purpose helps you to move forward with positivity and hopefully make some real changes in your life.
Keep it in check
Feelings of guilt can very quickly become a downward spiral that twists things out of proportion. Before you let guilt consume you, take a second to ask yourself if the amount of guilt you’re feeling is in proportion to the situation that you’re guilty about. Exaggerating your punishment might make you think that you’ll be able to get over it in an ‘I paid my dues’ kind of way, but this can be unhealthy for your self-esteem, self-worth, and self-perception. If you’re feeling extremely guilty, get active with your guilt. Talk to a friend or journal your emotions so that you can get an objective perspective on your feelings and have the self-awareness to curb them if they’re out of control.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can guilt lead to anxiety or depression?
Yes, when guilt becomes overwhelming or persistent, it can lead to anxiety or depression. Constantly ruminating about past mistakes or feeling like a failure can negatively affect mental health. It’s important to recognize when guilt becomes a problem and seek support when needed.
Can mindfulness be helpful in dealing with guilt?
Yes, mindfulness can be a helpful tool in dealing with guilt. Mindfulness means being present in the moment and observing your thoughts and feelings without bias. This can help you become more aware of your guilt and approach it with a more balanced perspective. Mindfulness can also help you let go of negative thoughts and focus on the present moment.
How can I support someone who is feeling guilty?
Listen without judgment: Allow the person to express their feelings without judging or criticizing them.
Validate their feelings: Let the person know that it’s normal to feel guilty and that you understand why they feel that way.
Encourage self-compassion: Remind the person to be kind to themselves and practice self-compassion.
Offer help or support: If the person needs help making amends or taking corrective action, offer your support and assistance.
Encourage professional help: If the person is experiencing overwhelming feelings of guilt, you should encourage them to see a mental health professional.
Can guilt be cultural or religious?
Yes, guilt can be influenced by cultural or religious beliefs. In some cultures or religions, guilt is seen as a necessary part of moral development or as a means of promoting conformity to social norms. Yet excessive or irrational guilt can still negatively affect mental health and well-being.
How can I prevent guilt from affecting my relationships?
Practice open and honest communication: Talk to your loved ones about your feelings and work together to find solutions.
Set realistic expectations: Don’t set unrealistic or unattainable expectations for yourself or others.
Practice self-care: Take care of yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally so you can be on your best behavior in your relationships.
Practice forgiveness: Forgive yourself and others for mistakes or misunderstandings.
Seek support: If guilt interferes with your relationships, see a mental health professional who can help you process your feelings and develop healthier coping strategies.
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