Dealing With Guilt: Definition, Coping Mechanisms, And Prevention

Updated November 8, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Many people experience guilt, whether that guilt was earned or not. For some people, guilt is a quick pang that comes after saying an ill-advised harsh word or doing less than their best. For others, 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. 

Guilt Can Feel Like A Weight On Our Chest

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. Guilt may be accompanied by shame and feelings of isolation and is not usually regarded as a “good” thing, though it has been linked to morality and matters of conscience. Guilt can come and go. But it may also be a constant, heavy companion, or can only come about in times of great stress or after we’ve made a significant mistake.

Guilt is often linked to other large emotions such as sadness, anger, and fear. For instance, we might feel guilt over getting angry with a loved one or feel guilt for being sad that a friend got the big promotion we hoped for. Guilt is rarely experienced in a vacuum, free from other emotions, and can usually be tied to at least one other emotional state.

What Is The Purpose Of Guilt?

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

In manipulative or abusive relationships, guilt can be used as a tool to keep us docile, quiet, and present with our partner, instead of moving on to a healthier situation. However, it doesn’t have to be a romantic partner using guilt to control us. A parent might guilt us into spending more time with them by regularly bringing up how lonely they are and how hard they worked to raise us. A friend might casually—but consistently—mention how they never see us anymore because of our new partner and insist that we see more of them instead. Guilt can be used as a means of guiding or outright controlling our choices and behaviors.

Sorting Out Personal Guilt

Guilt can also be turned against us. If we find ourselves constantly allowing ourselves to feel guilty over every little thing, and find that guilt is taking over our life, dictating our relationship choices, work choices, and more, we may have slipped into a trap of toxic guilt. This type of guilt can be challenging, rather than motivating, and can be the start of a dangerous cycle, wherein we isolate ourselves and hide to avoid feeling guilty but feel even more guilt and shame because we are hiding away.

In these instances, a therapist may be necessary to help explore some of our guilt and heal its origin. 

With online therapy, clients can explore their feelings of guilt with a licensed provider in the comfort of their own home or preferred environment. Digital therapy is also accessible for people living in remote areas and it’s typically more affordable than in-person therapy because clients are not required to travel for an appointment.

How To Cope With Guilt: Guilt And Shame

Once guilt has arrived, it may not have to make itself a mainstay of our life. Whether its instigator is us or someone external, 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 us and has reached a toxic or shameful level rather than a healthy one, the first step in coping may be to acknowledge our guilt. Acknowledge that we feel guilty, acknowledge why we feel guilty, and let ourselves feel that guilt for a moment. Once we’ve given ourselves free reign to fully experience our feelings, we may begin untangling the source of our guilt.

But why do we feel guilty? Is it a productive form of guilt or shame that’s keeping us trapped and isolated? It may become an issue when healthy guilt alienates, separates, or shames us. Instead, healthy guilt can serve as a motivator to improve our behavior or right a wrong.

This might mean agreeing to speak with our parents for a very specific amount of time or on specific days or telling our friends we will not be available to hang out for a time. Setting boundaries could also mean telling our boss we will not work any extra shifts. Coping with guilt created by others can be more difficult than coping with self-made guilt, because the offending party might not like letting go of the control or manipulation they acquired as a result of trying to impose guilt on us.

Preventing Different Types Of Guilt

Preventing guilt also depends on the type of guilt, and who is responsible for it. Preventing healthy guilt can mean striving to do what you believe is right on a regular basis. If we believe we should hold our tongue in a heated moment with a partner, we may decide to be calm to prevent feeling guilty about having said something rude or vicious in the moment.

If we are prone to feeling guilty over workplace snafus, we could try being honest with our coworkers, supervisors, and ourselves, in order to prevent taking undue credit or foisting work off onto others. Because self-imposed guilt may stem from the failure to adhere to our own moral standards, preventing this type of guilt may requires living in line with your values.

Shame-based guilt may not be quite so simple to prevent. Self-imposed guilt that has reached toxic proportions may stem from unrealistic expectations we’ve set for ourselves, or an internalization of someone else's expectations. To prevent this form of guilt, we might first identify our own values. Ask ourselves if our values are, in fact, our own, or are simply a product of our upbringing or conditioning. Identifying our own beliefs, wants, and needs, can be a pivotal part of keeping toxic guilt at bay, as it may allow us to recognize the things we believe to be integral.

Finally, preventing the type of guilt coming from others can involve setting boundaries and taking a proactive approach in saying, "No." Boundaries are often difficult to set, and can be even more difficult to enforce, but can be 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 can be important first steps in preventing the guilt of manipulation while extending the offer to others can be a great second step. If we can recognize the harm of someone using guilt to control our behavior, we may be able to recognize our own tendencies to do the same thing.

Guilt: Definition And Coping

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

Guilt Can Feel Like A Weight On Our Chest

Takeaway

If you find yourself experiencing dramatic episodes of guilt, whether they are self-imposed or other-imposed, take a moment for a long, deep breath, and consider searching for an online mental health professional to speak with that may help identify any unhealthy coping mechanisms you might be engaged in, and replace those mechanisms with healthier, more effective ones.

An online therapist may help you identify triggers 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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