Guilt is an emotion that involves feelings of remorse and self-judgment. While it can be a helpful emotion for personal growth, letting it linger too long can take a toll on your emotional health.
Over the course of your life thus far, you’ve probably done a thing or two you regret.
Most people have, since mistakes are a natural part of human growth. Still, the guilt that creeps in and stakes out space in your consciousness can cause plenty of emotional and physical turmoil.
You might know guilt best as the nauseating twist in your stomach that accompanies the knowledge you’ve hurt someone else. Perhaps you also deal with recurring self-judgment and criticism related to your memories of what happened and your fear of others finding out.
As an emotion, guilt has a lot of power.
Guilt can help you acknowledge your actions and fuel your motivation to improve your behavior. It might also lead you to fixate on what you could have done differently.
If you’ve never felt able to come clean about a mess-up, your guilt might feel magnified to an almost unbearable degree.
Though guilt can sometimes promote positive growth, it can also linger and hold you back — long after others have forgotten or forgiven what happened.
Grappling with the weight? These 10 tips can help lighten your load.
In the moment, ignoring your guilt or trying to push it away might seem like a helpful strategy. If you don’t think about it, you might reason, it will eventually dwindle and disappear. Right?
This is actually not the case.
Like other emotions, unaddressed guilt can stick around, making you feel worse over time.
Refusing to acknowledge your guilt might temporarily keep it from spilling into your everyday life, but masking your emotions generally doesn’t work as a permanent strategy. Truly addressing guilt requires you to first accept those feelings, however unpleasant they are.
Give this exercise a try:
- Set aside some quiet time for yourself.
- You can bring along a journal to keep track of your thoughts.
- Say to yourself, or write down, what happened: “I feel guilty because I shouted at my kids.” “I broke a promise.” “I cheated on a test.”
- Mentally open the door to guilt, frustration, regret, anger, and any other emotions that might come up. Writing down what you feel can help.
- Sit with those feelings and explore them with curiosity instead of judgment. Many situations are more complex than they first appear. Picking apart the knot of distress can help you get a better handle on what you’re really feeling.
If you have a hard time acknowledging guilt, regular mindfulness meditation or guided journals may make a difference. These practices can help you become more familiar with emotions, making it easier to accept and work through even the most uncomfortable ones.
Guilt can happen on an individual or collective level. Some people shift in and out of each type throughout their lifetime. Others may feel one or more type of guilt at the same time:
- Natural guilt: Natural guilt, simply put, is what you feel after you think you did something wrong. For example, if you break a promise to a friend, you might convince yourself you’re a bad friend. You chastise and think about what you should have done. You made a promise, and naturally, you feel guilty, prompting you to want to apologize. Natural guilt is often temporary and goes away after resolution.
- Chronic guilt: This type happens from prolonged exposure to stress. Chronic guilt affects a person’s ability to regulate their emotions. A teacher, for example, may feel overworked and emotionally drained, which can affect relationships with students. The resulting guilt becomes a symptom of chronic-work related stress, or burnout. Some researchers argue for the inclusion of guilt in clinical evaluations of burnout. Chronic guilt can also occur with episodes of major depression.
- Collective guilt: This type involves a sense of group or shared responsibility. Residents of a city may experience collective guilt about people experiencing homelessness in their neighborhood. In this scenario, the residents feel personal responsibility and guilt about not taking action to help. Collective guilt is harder to resolve since it’s embedded within systemic problems.
- Survivor guilt: Traumatic events, such as witnessing a large-scale tragedy, may cause feelings of remorse and sadness. This could look like someone surviving an accident and then feeling guilty for the people who did not. Conversely, you may also feel guilty for being happy to be alive. Survivor guilt is characterized by conflicting emotional states.
Before you can successfully navigate guilt, you need to recognize where it comes from.
It’s natural to feel guilty when you know you’ve done something wrong. But guilt can also take root in response to events you didn’t have much, or anything, to do with.
Owning up to mistakes is important, even if you only admit them to yourself. It’s equally important to take note when you unnecessarily blame yourself for things you can’t control.
People often experience guilt over things they can’t be faulted for. You might feel guilty about breaking up with someone who still cares about you, or because you have a good job and your best friend can’t seem to find work.
Guilt can also stem from the belief that you’ve failed to fulfill expectations you or others have set. Of course, this guilt doesn’t reflect the effort you’ve put in to overcome the challenges keeping you from achieving those goals.
Some common causes of guilt include:
- surviving trauma or disaster
- conflict between personal values and choices you’ve made
- mental or physical health concerns
- thoughts or desires you believe you shouldn’t have
- taking care of your own needs when you believe you should focus on others
Is someone else constantly making you feel guilty? Check out our article on how to address guilt-tripping.
Guilt manifests in different ways. You may experience guilt when you feel responsible for a mistake. Or, you may feel guilty if you feel responsible for something that happened to someone else.
Guilt is not the same as shame, which implies feelings of inadequacy for not meeting self-imposed expectations. For example, you might feel shame for posting a selfie and later regret how you look in the picture, but this doesn’t necessarily make you a “bad” person or morally irresponsible.
Although shame and guilt share overlapping characteristics, signs of guilt
- feelings of responsibility for one’s actions
- desire to “fix” situations
- self-esteem issues
- negative self-criticism
Signs of unacknowledged guilt may include:
- negative beliefs about yourself and your character
- muscle tension
- digestive issues
Taking responsibility for guilt is one of the first steps to finding resolve.
A sincere apology can help you begin repairing damage after a wrongdoing. By apologizing, you convey remorse and regret to the person who was hurt, and let them know how you plan to avoid making the same mistake in the future.
You may not receive forgiveness immediately — or ever — since apologies don’t always mend broken trust.
Sincerely apologizing still helps you heal, though, since it offers you the chance to express your feelings and hold yourself accountable after messing up.
To make an effective apology, you’ll want to:
- acknowledge your role
- show remorse
- avoid making excuses
- ask for forgiveness
Follow through by showing regret in your actions.
The most heartfelt apology means nothing if you never do things differently going forward.
Making amends means committing to change.
Maybe you feel guilty for not spending enough time with your loved ones or failing to check in when they needed support. After apologizing, you might demonstrate your desire to change by asking “What can I do to help?” or “How can I be there for you?”
You may not always have the ability to apologize directly. If you can’t get in touch with the person you hurt, try writing a letter instead. Getting your apology out on paper can still be beneficial, even if they never see it.
You might owe yourself an apology, too. Instead of clinging to guilt and punishing yourself after an honest mistake, remember: No one does everything right all the time.
To make amends, commit to self-kindness instead of self-blame going forward.
You can’t mend every situation, and some mistakes might cost you a treasured relationship or a close friend. Guilt combined with sadness over someone or something you’ve lost often feels impossible to escape.
Before you can leave the past behind, you need to accept it. Looking back and ruminating on your memories won’t fix what happened.
You can’t rewrite events by replaying scenarios with different outcomes, but you can always consider what you’ve learned:
- What led to the mistake? Explore triggers that prompted your action and any feelings that tipped you over the edge.
- What would you do differently now?
- What did your actions tell you about yourself? Do they point to any specific behaviors you can work on?
It’s pretty common to feel guilty over needing help when you’re coping with challenges, emotional distress, or health concerns. Remember: People form relationships with others to build a community that can offer support.
Imagine the situation in reverse. You’d probably want to show up for your loved ones if they needed help and emotional support. Most likely, you wouldn’t want them to feel guilty about their struggles either.
There’s nothing wrong with needing help. Life isn’t meant to be faced alone.
Instead of feeling guilty when you need support, cultivate gratitude by:
- thanking loved ones for their kindness
- making your appreciation clear
- acknowledging any opportunities you’ve gained as a result of their support
- committing to paying this support forward once you’re on more solid ground
A mistake doesn’t make you a bad person — everyone messes up from time to time.
Guilt can provoke some pretty harsh self-criticism, but lecturing yourself on how catastrophically you messed up won’t improve things. Sure, you might have to face some external consequences, but self-punishment often takes the heaviest emotional toll.
Instead of shaming yourself, ask yourself what you might say to a friend in a similar situation. Perhaps you’d point out good things they’ve done, remind them of their strengths, and let them know how much you value them.
You deserve the same kindness.
People, and the circumstances they find themselves in, are complex. You may have some culpability for your mistake, but so might the others involved.
Reminding yourself of your worth can boost confidence, making it easier to consider situations objectively and avoid being swayed by emotional distress.
Guilt can serve as an alarm that lets you know when you’ve made a choice that conflicts with your personal values. Instead of letting it overwhelm you, try putting it to work.
When used as a tool, guilt can cast light on areas of yourself you feel dissatisfied with.
Maybe you find it difficult to be honest, and someone finally caught you in a lie. Perhaps you want to spend more time with your family, but something always gets in the way.
Taking action to address those circumstances can set you on a path that’s more in line with your goals.
If you feel guilty for not spending enough time with friends, you might make more of an effort to connect. When stress distracts you from your relationship, you might improve the situation by devoting one night a week to your partner.
It’s also worth paying attention to what guilt tells you about yourself.
Regret over hurting someone else suggests you have empathy and didn’t intend to cause harm. Creating change in your life might involve focusing on ways to avoid making that mistake again.
If you tend to feel bad about things you can’t control, it may be beneficial to explore the reasons behind your guilt with the help of a professional.
Self-forgiveness is a key component of self-compassion. When you forgive yourself, you acknowledge that you made a mistake, like all other humans do. Then, you can look to the future without letting that mistake define you. You grant yourself love and kindness by accepting your imperfect self.
Self-forgiveness involves four key steps:
- Take responsibility for your actions.
- Express remorse and regret without letting it transform into shame.
- Commit to making amends for any harm you caused.
- Practice self-acceptance and trust yourself to do better in the future.
People often have a hard time discussing guilt, which is understandable. After all, it’s not easy to talk about a mistake you regret. This means guilt can isolate you, and loneliness and isolation can complicate the healing process.
You might worry others will judge you for what happened, but you’ll often find that isn’t the case. In fact, you may find loved ones offer a lot of support.
The people who care for you will generally offer kindness and compassion. And sharing unpleasant or difficult feelings often relieves tension.
Friends and family can also help you feel less alone by sharing their experiences. Nearly everyone has done something they regret, so most people know what it’s like to feel guilty.
An outside perspective can also make a big difference, especially if you’re dealing with survivor guilt or guilt about something you had no control over.
Severe or persistent guilt doesn’t always lift easily. Some people find it difficult to work through feelings of guilt that relate to:
It’s tough to open up about guilt if you fear judgment. However, avoiding these feelings will usually worsen the situation.
Over time, guilt can affect relationships and add stress to daily life. It can also play a part in sleep difficulty and mental health conditions. Or it can lead to negative coping methods, like substance use.
When an undercurrent of misery, rumination, and regret threads through your daily interactions, keeping you from staying present with yourself and others, professional support might be a good next step.
Finding a therapist or mental health professional can help. They can offer guidance by helping you identify and address the causes of guilt, explore effective coping skills, and develop greater self-compassion.
Guilt belongs in the past. You can begin letting it go by strengthening your resilience and building confidence to make better choices in the future.
If you’re struggling to resolve feelings of guilt, know you don’t need to do it alone. Therapy can offer a safe space to learn how to forgive yourself and move forward.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.