Guilt can be defined as a self-conscious emotion characterized by an assessment of having done (or thought) something that is wrong.1 Guilt can be grouped in with other emotions like grief, loneliness, agony, and shame. Coping with guilt takes practice, awareness, reflection, and self forgiveness. Even though guilt does not feel good, it can be alleviated and managed with the help of a therapist, group therapy, or support system
Guilt is an uncomfortable emotion yet it can be manageable. Depending on your situation there are several actions you can participate in to alleviate or eliminate your guilt. You can make amends, recognize which kind of guilt you may be feeling and work toward a resolution, engage in individual or group therapy, reach out to a member of your support network, learn to challenge negative thoughts that make you feel guilty, and work on forgiving yourself.
1. Make Amends & Change Your Behavior
Be honest and hold yourself accountable. If your action or inaction harmed someone, reach out and offer to make amends if you can. It is even okay to ask the person how you can make amends.
2. Know the Difference
Learn how to distinguish between justifiable and unjustifiable guilt by asking yourself some questions about your guilt, such as:
- Was it something I did or didn’t do?
- Was the event within my control?
- Could I be perceiving the situation wrong?
3. Reach Out to a Therapist
If guilty feelings seem unmanageable, last for an extended time, or impact your daily life a therapist can help you understand and actively work through your guilty feelings. If your guilt is related to trauma it would be beneficial to seek a therapist with experience in trauma-informed care or post-traumatic-stress disorder.
4. Engage in Group Therapy
Generally speaking, most people feel guilt. It can be helpful to share and listen to others’ experiences and how they cope with guilt. Group therapy can provide a connectedness and relatability to others.
5. Process With a Trusted Friend or Mentor
Processing your guilt with someone you trust can help you distinguish between justified and unjustified guilt, provide support, and help you brainstorm ways to cope with your guilt.
6. Reframe Negative Thoughts
Toxic or existential guilt often produce negative thoughts that impact self-esteem. Write or share your negative thoughts and challenge them with something positive and fact-based.
For example: I feel guilty I got the promotion over my coworker. Instead remind yourself that I worked hard and was rewarded for my hard work.
7. Accept & Learn to Forgive Yourself
Everyone makes mistakes and poor choices. No one is perfect. Forgiving yourself and committing to doing better next time can help resolve guilty feelings.
What Causes Feelings of Guilt?
There are several different opinions surrounding what causes guilt because there are many variables to consider like personality, culture, perceived wrong-doing, and level of self-awareness and emotional well-being.
Generally, it is accepted that there are different types of guilt and while there are interchangeable names, most types can fall into the following categories:
Natural guilt is a normal reaction to something you did or failed to do. The guilty feeling is typically short lived and one is able to forgive self or make amends.3 This can be provoked by forgetting a special event like a birthday or anniversary, or lying to a friend or family member
Toxic guilt is a sense or belief that you are not a good person in general, a constant failure, or perceive that you continually disappoint others even when there is no wrong doing. The guilty feeling can be long-lasting and brought on by self-judgement and inability to forgive oneself.3
Examples include believing you need to be perfect all the time or believing you cannot do or say anything right to a friend or family member (maybe that loved one is guilt-tripping you, making the situation worse).
Existential guilt is also called survivor’s guilt, which arises from trauma, natural disasters, or perceived injustices of the world beyond one’s control.3 Examples include surviving any traumatic event where others did not or were severely injured or covering from an illness such as cancer or COVID-19 when others did not.
Furthermore when understanding guilt it can be helpful to assess whether the feeling of guilt is adaptive/healthy or maladaptive/unhealthy.
Adaptive/Healthy Guilt coincides with natural guilt and is rational. This form of guilt can also help change and regulate behaviors to prevent us from making the same mistakes over again. The feeling of guilt is justifiable.5 If you forgot to wish your friend a happy birthday it is understandable to feel guilty even if it was a mistake. You can apologize, recognize we all make mistakes, and set a reminder for next time.
Maladaptive or unhealthy Guilt happens when guilt is exaggerated, distorted or perceived incorrectly, having guilt for circumstances out of their control, or when amends are not possible for behaviors. This type of guilt is usually unjustifiable. Toxic and Existential guilt fall under this type.2
Caregivers can develop unhealthy guilt after a loved one passes away. Oftentimes, they will question whether they provided enough care or made the right decisions. These judgments are often critical and unfavorable and do not take into consideration how the caregiver did provide support. Adaptive or healthy guilt will typically resolve itself while maladaptive/unhealthy guilt can have long-lasting and serious implications on one’s mental health.
How Can Feelings of Guilt Affect Your Mental Health?
Healthy, natural guilt can help promote empathy, promote repair in relationships.2 Being able to recognize and understand that guilt is a normal emotion when justifiable will help propel you to make amends and reflect on future behaviors or choices that might impact others.
Toxic guilt can have long lasting consequences to your mental health. These types of guilt are often linked to individuals who struggle with depression, anxiety, dysphoria, and obsessive compulsive disorder and may exacerbate symptoms.5
Furthermore it can lead to negative impacts on relationships, sleep, eating, hobbies/interests, and concentration/focus all which impact your mental health overall.3
When to Get Professional Help for Feeling Guilty
Guilt is an emotion that does not make us feel good inside. Everyone experiences guilt throughout their life. Healthy, adaptive guilt can typically be resolved by oneself in a reasonable amount of time. Toxic, Existential, and Maladaptive/Unhealthy guilt can be much more difficult to resolve on our own and we might need the help of our support network or therapy.
Some other indicators it might be time to seek help include:
- Finding yourself unable to accept what happened or forgive yourself
- Noticing your thoughts and actions are driven by guilty feelings
- Overcompensating because you feel guilty
- Guilty feelings have led to changes in:
- Sleep habits
- Self esteem
- Interest or hobbies
It is important to understand that guilt is appropriate to feel if you did something wrong. We can even feel guilty if we think about doing something wrong without ever engaging in the action. When our thoughts and feelings begin to overpower our daily life and impact our behaviors and choices this is a warning sign from your body telling you that you need to address this issue.4
Who Should I Consult for Help With Feelings of Guilt?
If you have never been to therapy (individual or group) it can be tough to know where to start. Guilt and its impact is unique to each individual. Mental health and licensed professionals are familiar with emotions and can be helpful.
Here are some professionals to reach out to if you’re struggling with guilty feelings:
- If you are struggling with guilt in relationships it might be a good idea to reach out to a therapist that specializes in marriage and family counseling.
- If your guilt involves a traumatic or natural disaster a helpful therapist might be one that specializes in trauma informed care or post-traumatic stress disorder.
- If your guilt is related to substance use/abuse look for a therapist that specializes in alcohol and drugs/substance abuse.
- If you are struggling with guilt related to having or surviving a medical illness/disease, substance abuse, or caregiving group therapy or a support group can give you a space to share your guilt with others who can empathize with your situation and expand your support network.
How to Find a Therapist
Therapists vary on specialties, cost per session, availability, and modalities. Time frames will be different depending on individual situations. This information is great to ask any potential therapist you might be considering working with.
Finding a therapist is an important decision. It is important to find a therapist that will be a good fit and beneficial for you.
How to Support a Loved One Who’s Feeling Guilty
Offering understanding and support without judgment is optimal for loved ones struggling with guilt. Gently remind your loved one that guilt is a normal emotion and if appropriate, share your own experience with guilt. Oftentimes people are overly critical of themselves which can lead to a distorted idea of what happened or disproportionate level of guilt. Offer to help a loved one challenge their guilt, especially if it falls under toxic or existential guilt. If your loved one is willing you could collaboratively work on a plan to make amends and work toward changing behaviors.
Unhelpful statements or suggestions can reinforce or exacerbate guilt. Be mindful how you engage in discussing guilty feelings. Even if our intentions are to be helpful, word choice and tone matters. For example instead of saying, “you need therapy,” reframe and say, “I noticed you’ve been struggling for awhile now. Is it possible therapy might help?” Avoid ridiculing and bringing up past poor choices or mistakes your loved one has made.
It is okay to admit and tell your loved one you are unsure how to support them with their guilt. This can open up the dialogue to suggest looking into individual or group therapy or brainstorm ways to help together.
How to Stop Feeling Guilty Infographics