Dealing With Guilt: Definition, Coping Mechanisms, And Prevention

By Corrina Horne

Updated September 02, 2019

Reviewer Aaron Horn

Guilt is a universal emotion. Everyone has experienced guilt at one time or another, whether that guilt was earned or not. For some, guilt is a quick pang that comes after saying an ill-advised harsh word, or doing less than their best. For some, guilt is a seemingly endless feeling that stretches as far into the past as memory goes, and as far into the future as is foreseeable. For many, guilt is something that has been used against them by friends, family members, or superiors, and guilt has functioned as a method of control or manipulation. Given its many sources, how can you define guilt?

What Is Guilt?

Guilt is an emotional response to real or perceived mistakes or wrongdoing. Guilt may arise all on its own, or can arise at the behest of others. Typically, guilt is accompanied by shame and feelings of isolation; it is not usually regarded as a good thing, though it has been linked to morality and matters of conscience. Guilt can come and go, can be a constant, heavy companion, or can only come about in times of great stress or after you've made a significant mistake.

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Guilt is often linked to other large emotions. Sadness, anger, and fear can all be linked to guilt. You might feel guilt over getting angry with a loved one, for instance, or for feeling sad that a friend got the big promotion you'd hoped for. Guilt is rarely experienced in a vacuum, free from other emotions, and is usually tied to at least one other emotional state.

What Is the Purpose of Guilt?

Guilt often functions as a means of guiding yourself in the right direction. If you've said something particularly harsh or unkind to someone, you might feel guilt long enough that you are compelled to go and apologize. If you've cheated on a partner, guilt may drive you to come clean and acknowledge your mistake. If you took credit for someone else's work, guilt could encourage you to go to your boss and make sure credit goes where it belongs. While guilt can be a wonderful tool in keeping yourself accountable, it can also be toxic and can be used against you.

In manipulative or abusive relationships, guilt can be used as a tool to keep you docile, quiet, and present with your partner, instead of moving on to a healthier situation. It does not have to be a romantic partner using guilt to control you, however; family members and friends can also use guilt as a means of exerting control over you. A parent might guilt you into spending more time with them, by regularly bringing up how old and lonely they are, and how hard they worked to raise you. A friend might casually (but consistently) mention how they never see you anymore because of your new girlfriend, and insist that you see more of them instead. Guilt can be used as a means of guiding or outright controlling your choices and behaviors.

Guilt can also be turned against yourself. If you find yourself constantly allowing yourself to feel guilty over every little thing, and find that guilt is taking over your life, dictating your relationship choices, work choices, and more, you may have slipped into a trap of toxic guilt. This type of guilt is crippling, rather than motivating, and can be the start of a dangerous cycle, wherein you isolate yourself and hide to avoid feeling guilty, but feel even more guilt and shame because you are hiding yourself away. In these instances, a visit to a therapist may be necessary to help sort out some of your guilt and heal its origin.

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How to Cope With Guilt: Guilt and Shame

Once guilt has arrived, it does not have to make itself a mainstay of your life. Whether its instigator is you or someone entirely outside of you, guilt can be worked through and worked with. Coping with guilt and shame will depend on the instigator of the guilt, as different root causes will require different coping mechanisms.

If guilt is primarily coming from you and has reached a toxic (or shameful) level rather than a healthy one, the first step in coping is stopping to acknowledge your guilt. Acknowledge that you feel guilty, acknowledge why you feel guilty, and let yourself feel that guilt for a moment. Once you've given yourself free reign to fully experience your feelings, begin untangling the source of your guilt. Why should you feel guilty? Is it a productive form of guilt or shame, keeping you trapped and isolated? Healthy guilt should not be one that in any way alienates, separates, or shames you; instead, healthy guilt serves as a motivator to improve your behavior or right a wrong. Unhealthy guilt (or shame) tells you that you are worthless and that trying to do the right thing is unnecessary or useless.

Dealing with guilt from a third party is far more complex, as you may need to set boundaries with loved ones to keep guilt at bay. This might mean agreeing to speak with your parents for a very specific amount of time or on specific days, or telling your friends you will not be available to hang out for a time. Setting boundaries could also mean telling your boss you will not work any extra shifts, or letting your coworkers know you do not appreciate the sexist comments they make at your expense. Coping with guilt created by others is, arguably, more difficult than coping with self-made guilt, because the offending party might not like letting go of the control or manipulation they have as a result of trying to impose guilt on you.

Preventing Guilt

Preventing guilt also depends on the type of guilt, and who is responsible for it. Preventing healthy guilt is simple enough: strive to do what you believe is right on a regular basis. If you believe you should hold your tongue in a heated moment with a partner, hold your tongue to prevent feeling guilty about having said something rude or vicious in the moment. If you are prone to feeling guilty over workplace snafus, make sure you are being honest with your coworkers, your supervisors, and yourself, in order to prevent taking undue credit, foisting work off onto others, and other common workplace problems. Because self-imposed guilt is usually borne of the failure to adhere to your own moral standards, preventing this type of guilt usually only requires living in line with your values.

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Shame-based guilt is not quite so simple to prevent; usually, self-imposed guilt that has reached toxic proportions is borne of unrealistic expectations you've set for yourself, or an internalization of someone else's expectations. To prevent this form of guilt, first identify your own values. Ask yourself if your values are, in fact, your own, or are simply a product of your upbringing or conditioning. Identifying your own beliefs, wants, and needs, is a pivotal part of keeping toxic guilt at bay, as it allows you to recognize the things you believe to be integral, and the things you believe to be extemporaneous, which derails others' expectations of you.

Finally, preventing the type of guilt coming from others involves setting boundaries (again), and taking a proactive approach in saying, "No." Boundaries are often difficult to set, and can be even more difficult to enforce, but are extremely important in preventing or avoiding guilt brought on by others and the corresponding control and manipulation this type of guilt often welcomes in. Setting and keeping boundaries are the first steps in preventing the guilt of manipulation, and extending the offer to others is the second step. If you are able to recognize the harm of someone using guilt to control your behavior, you should also be able to recognize your own tendencies to do the same thing.

Guilt: Definition and Coping

Although guilt is not always a negative thing, it can quickly take over your life and wreak havoc on your self-esteem. Low self-esteem leads to numerous other health concerns. Preventing additional guilt and treating existing guilt is an important task, both for your mental health and the person with whom you are interacting. While healthy guilt can keep you accountable, improve your health, and make sure you are living a life in line with your values, guilt can also drive you in the other direction, pushing you toward isolation, anger, and shame, all of which are problematic instead of useful.

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If you find yourself experiencing dramatic episodes of guilt, whether they are self-imposed or other-imposed, take a moment to have a deep, long breath, and consider searching for a mental health professional to speak with to help identify any unhealthy coping mechanisms you might be engaged in, and replace those mechanisms with healthier, more effective ones. A therapist will be able to help you identify triggers, improve self-talk, and improve your ability to adhere to boundaries in order to keep guilt at a healthy level in your life, and eradicate unhealthy guilt entirely.


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