What Causes Guilt?

Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PMHNP-BC on May 4, 2016 Written by Brian Krans

Guilt is often defined as our conscience telling us that we’ve done something wrong. It’s usually a helpful tool to keep us accountable for what we do. People with bipolar disorder and other depressive disorders, however, often experience... Read More

Guilt is often defined as our conscience telling us that we’ve done something wrong. It’s usually a helpful tool to keep us accountable for what we do. People with bipolar disorder and other depressive disorders, however, often experience excessive guilt. Their conscience blows things out of proportion, causing them to feel disproportionately guilty and remorseful. These emotions are usually accompanied by low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness.

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness characterized by extreme mood changes that include bouts of mania and depression. During episodes of mania, or emotional highs, people may feel overtly happy and energetic. However, their mood can shift to a more depressive state very quickly. They may feel sad or hopeless and be less interested in doing activities they normally enjoy. People with bipolar disorder may also be overwhelmed with feelings of guilt during a depressive episode. They often replay things in their heads constantly and question themselves or their decisions. They may feel that their condition is causing them to do something wrong.

If you have bipolar disorder, then you’re probably familiar with these feelings of guilt during depressive phases. You may believe that everything you do isn’t good enough and that you’re always letting others down. This can make you feel small, incapable, and unworthy. You may also feel obligated to satisfy others, which makes you agree to do whatever people ask of you. You never say “no” to other people’s requests, especially for work. This may take up a lot of your time, which can make you feel guilty about not spending enough time with family and friends.

The guilt you frequently experience can make it difficult for you to recognize successes or positive personal attributes. This can have a negative impact on your self-esteem.

Guilt and Self-Esteem

Real or perceived, excessive guilt is a debilitating symptom of the depressed phase of bipolar disorder. The mind starts to sabotage itself with dark, negative, and unrealistic thoughts. You can feel stuck in a loop of negativity as your mind repeatedly rehashes even the most minor situation, like a nagging voice inside of your head.

No matter how hard you try to fight it, the real or perceived guilt you feel can have an effect on your self-esteem. During a depressive state, it’s not uncommon to experience low self-esteem. Low self-esteem is having a generally negative opinion of yourself. You may feel as though you’re not good enough, not worthy of love, or unable to meet people’s expectations. None of that’s actually true, but negative emotions can get in the way of reality.

Unfortunately, there’s no quick trick that will instantly remove guilt, despair, and remorse from your mind. However, there are some ways to improve your symptoms and boost your self-esteem. All it takes is practice, determination, and drive.

Helping Your Condition

Self-confidence can be vital for people with bipolar disorder. It can help prevent self-blame and instill a sense of duty to yourself and others. Here are some things you can do to boost your self-esteem:

Get to know yourself.

You should take some time to get to know yourself. This could include paying close attention to your thoughts and reactions, keeping a journal, or simply setting aside a few minutes at the end of the day to reflect. These activities are important to do during depressive episodes. Take note of how you feel as well as when the emotion started. These types of discoveries may be helpful to bring up with your therapist.

Meditation is a great form of self-exploration. Regular meditation can calm a frantic mind and help you better understand your surroundings. While meditation won’t change your circumstances, it can change how you perceive situations and how you react to them.

Give back.

Doing something nice for someone else is a good way to improve your mood. Donating your time to a local charity or non-profit group can help better your community and boost your self-esteem.

Charity and non-profit groups are always looking for volunteers. Even if you only want to agree to a one-time event to start, local libraries and soup kitchens usually need help organizing and stocking. Feel free to try different organizations and events to see what you like. It doesn’t have to be a formal process. Even doing something as simple as offering to mow your neighbor’s lawn or picking up garbage while you go for a walk can go a long way. The exercise will benefit you as well.

Work on it.

If there’s something about yourself that you really don’t like, work on changing it. For example, if you’re unhappy with your weight, start exercising and eating more healthful foods. Just remember that making changes to any part of your life won’t happen immediately. It takes work, but it’s worth it.

If you’re displeased about something you can’t change, such as your height, then work on accepting it. Attempting to change the way you perceive things can be difficult, especially with a complicated condition such as bipolar disorder. However, it’s important to avoid obsessing over any perceived “flaws,” as it can bring down your self-esteem. You should also avoid jumping to conclusions about what other people may think about you. For example, if you think people are only saying negative things about you, pay closer attention to what they’re saying. There’s a good chance you’re skipping over the good things and only focusing on the negative.

Slow down.

You may believe that you have to do a million things each day to feel better and to have a productive day. However, when you’re rushing through things without giving yourself enough time to think, the chances are that you’re going to make mistakes. This may become apparent during depressive states if you’re attempting to stay busy to avoid dealing with your feelings. Slowing down can be difficult at first, but maintaining a pace that you can keep up with is important for improving your self-esteem and overall well-being.

Make lists.

Everyone forgets things from time to time, but if you do it often, you may become frustrated and slip into guilt. That’s why it’s important to write things down. Making lists is also a great way to show yourself how much you’re getting done.

Start by putting small things on the list, such doing laundry or cleaning the kitchen. You may normally be able to complete these tasks without writing them down, but crossing anything off a to-do list can be satisfying. The more small chores you can get done, the more accomplished you’ll feel.

Learn something new.

If you doubt how smart you are, get smarter. Learning something new, such as another hobby or language, can boost your self-esteem. Just make sure that you’re doing something you enjoy, or you may get stuck in a deeper rut of self-loathing.

If you have difficulty sitting down and learning something new, try doing a new physical activity, such as dancing or playing sports. This activity can be a good way to channel your energy during manic episodes. It can even help reinvigorate you during depressive states.


No matter what you’re trying to do or change, it’s going to take practice. Go easy on yourself, learn from your mistakes, and move on. If you choose to learn something new, the practice should be part of the fun. Try not to allow yourself to become discouraged as you learn new things.

Celebrate small victories. 

As you’re working through your personal changes, don’t forget to stop and celebrate the little victories. This can be something as small as following your exercise plan for an entire week. Taking time to enjoy and celebrate your accomplishments can boost your self-esteem and show you that you have what it takes to maintain your progress.

Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PMHNP-BC on May 4, 2016 Written by Brian Krans

6 possible conditions

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose. Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.

Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PMHNP-BC on May 4, 2016 Written by Brian Krans