Forgiving Yourself: How To Deal With Guilt

By: Mary Elizabeth Dean

Updated August 28, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Lauren Guilbeault

Guilt has been a giant topic of discussion for many subjects: philosophy, therapy, religion, just to name a few. One would imagine with all the time spent on understanding this emotion we would have concrete definitions, but as it seems, it follows the same mysterious and complex nature of any human feeling.

Guilt Can Weigh Heavily On Us
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Whether guilt has any value is as subjective as they come, but to simply run away from these seemingly random emotions will be a recipe for enhanced guilt and further shame. Before we move on, let's have some context.

Guilt in several instances is nothing more than the perception of causing harm. Aside from very real and factual instances of guilt, we are suffering from the products of our imaginations. But without a doubt, and without fail, everyone will suffer from one of many forms of guilt.

Most examples of guilt fall into a few categories:

Legitimate Cause

This kind of guilt is caused by a regrettable action that conflicts with some social or moral norm. Collectively, as a society, we view these behaviors as bad and we intuitively understand it to be so without any apparent reminder. We punish ourselves for contributing towards a mutually understood topic of bad behavior.

Affairs to some countries are simple and natural forms of marriage whereas in another is a vile act with no mercy. But depending on where you've been raised, your standards of guilt are defined by your environment.

When we've committed such an act, then we feel a pronounced feeling of guilt. Each instance, almost without anticipation, we feel the painful anguish of remembering the event. The feelings as painful as the moment and as clearly as vivid as our memory can provide. These moments are a painful series of failures on our efforts to be human and we feel immense guilt towards it.

Regardless of whether the guilt is justified, we must remember that as a human being and even as animals in general, we have a tendency to value negative events over positive ones, the negative bias.

Studies done by John Cacioppo has shown that negative feeling of negativity has stronger stimuli than neutral or positive feelings. A primal instinct that safeguards our lives. We can't escape the fundamental systems that have brought us to the life we have now.

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As caveman/cavewoman, what helped us survive was remembering the mistakes and potentialities of danger. Without that awareness, we would go throughout our days aloof, being prime prey for our hungry predators. So our readiness for bad news is entirely a natural part of being human. We are all prone to be negative people despite how upbeat we believe we are.

For legitimate causes of guilt, we have the obvious examples:

  • Committing a crime that brings other's harm in some way or form
  • Committing a selfish act that has known consequences, but continues anyway
  • Stealing, murder, etc.

Perceived Cause

There is no shortage of reasons to hate ourselves. As our self-esteem comes into question at several points in our lives, we have a tendency to view ourselves negatively and guilt is no exception. The effects of guilt can be so great that many people have to seek help from trained counseling professionals to really see relief from guilt.

It's almost comical how much we believe our perceptions of harm can be. Having the thought to throw your pet after a disastrous accident, isn't an action, it's just a thought that impulsive points into our minds. Thinking of horrible actions that have very real consequences doesn't mean we are monsters ourselves. Our imagination is a feat of our wonderful creativity, not a demonstration of our desires. We just don't know how to deal with guilt.

If we identified with our thoughts, we would have a recipe for anguish and guilt. And what we can attribute this completely exaggerated importance of thought to egocentrism (The selfish notion that we are the center of the universe).

Our "perception" of harm is simply our overemphasis on our own actions. We inflame what is actually real and act without evidence.

Examples include:

  • Thinking of recklessly driving through streetlights and people because of several hour traffic jam
  • Wanting to smack a stranger's child as they give blood-curdling screams for attention
  • Breaking every conceivable object out of vengeance

What's important to note is that these thoughts are entirely impulsive. We don't choose these thoughts. These thoughts are as random as they come. We may not know how to deal with guilt, but we aren't acting on every dream that we may have and we aren't acting on every impulse or thoughts we have either. They are harmless and downright creative thoughts.

Of course, there are individuals who do believe in the absolute importance of their own thoughts. And thus we have the second category of perceived causes of guilt: the awareness of accidental harm.

Examples including:

  • Accidentally commenting on someone's insecurities
  • Being ruder than we realize
  • Talking back to a superior

If we festered on these feelings of guilt, if we claimed these perceived faults within ourselves, we can have legitimate causes for concern. Guilt spares no expense on the intensity of negative emotion. And when the train of negative thoughts starts, it takes a legitimate intervention to cease it. If we let the cycle continue we will have a direction of thought that only leads to pain, anguish, and defeat.

Guilt Can Weigh Heavily On Us
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Guilt can become a powerful force for those who don't know how to deal with guilt.

Guilt Spirals

Survivor's guilt is a prime example of how intense guilt can cause self-inflicting damage. Some survivors of tragedies feel that they don't deserve to be the ones to make it out. Knowing, personally, the fatalities involved causes them to believe they aren't worthy of living. This feeling of guilt leads towards the rabbit hole of pain to the ultimate end of a person's life. There is also another effect of guilt, the dobby effect.

The dobby effect is the tendency to self-punish to ward off feelings of guilt. Wrist cutting, banging our heads against the wall, are just a few of the possible options people have found.

Guilt can cause a spiral of doubt and negativity that could lead to self-harm. If you are one of said people, please seek help as their emotions are sometimes beyond our control. Seeking help is not a sign of weakness. There are people and organizations who are just trying to help.


Thankfully, there are options on how to deal with guilt. The first is to understand the emotion in the first place. If you've made it this far in the article then you probably have a firm understanding of what it is and where it comes from.

Embracing the guilt may be scary. But without a state of fear of being in a place of fear, how can we be courageous? If we have an individual who's completely fearless, we just have a person who doesn't even think of fear. But who's the courageous one? The person who doesn't think of fear and moves on without concern, or the person who is frightened out of their mind, yet still moves forward?

Next, make amends. If there is a situation in which you have committed an act of guilt with legitimate consequences then you have the option to practice effective apologizing. Sometimes it is you that you owe an apology to. If you have hurt others or yourself, you can move past guilt by making things right, as best you can.

Another method and a much more courageous way of dealing with guilt is to derive meaning from it. Are there positive things you can learn? What good came from this situation?

Guilt, believe it or not, is an opportunity to learn. To discover the lessons learned towards hidden value, we've got to consider the tools to get there. To become self-aware we must move past the initial feelings of pain and continue on towards meaning and for us to do that, we have to practice some form of observation.

The most common way is meditation. After the awareness of a lesson, we must document the observation through journaling. By combining both these skills, we have an unforgettable path towards discovering these points of conflict, and helpful action towards how to deal with guilt.

However, what we should also consider is the time needed to commit towards these ventures of healing.

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We spend several years of our lives sitting in a classroom to understand how to read, write and speak in one language. Hours after hours, days after days of constant learning simple lessons. To rush through these lessons would cause fundamental gaps in knowledge and cause a series of other damaging consequences. We've got to apply the same level of commitment towards this path of self-healing.

This is an investment in ourselves. To sit there thinking about the painful memories, to feel the anticipated horrible feelings is an act of courage and to continuously do it with a sliver of progress is another act of commitment. There are no easy solutions for this. But given time, courage, and commitment we can have real changes towards how to deal with guilt.


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