Addressing Your Feelings: How To Deal With Guilt
By: Rachel Lustbader
Updated February 05, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Avia James
All of us have experienced guilt at one point or another, and it often starts with our internal dialogue. Guilt can paralyze us or motivate us. When guilt is appropriate, it serves as a means to move us to reparations for the wrongs we have done to others. If guilt becomes excessive, it can lead to resentment and depression.
Types Of Guilt
There are several reasons why you may feel guilty. It is an emotion that often originates from the thought that you have harmed someone, even if it isn't logical. For those who have frequent feelings of guilt, they often have thoughts that assign them responsibility. At times, these thoughts assign excessive responsibility but without any true connection to the events or actions.
Another perspective of guilt is one that involves blaming yourself for things that go wrong in your life or for not reaching your goals. Once you get into the loop of self-blame, it can be easy to slip into a near-constant state of guilt.
One specific type of guilt is related to something you did wrong, which could include actions involving someone else or when you violated your moral code of ethics. You might be trying to quit a bad habit, such as smoking, and feel guilty when you cheat and smoke anyway. This guilt can be healthy because it can help you to make changes in your actions, and you have the chance to make amends to those who you may have wronged.
Another type of guilt is for your thoughts, but not your actions. Perhaps you are thinking of doing something wrong, and you feel guilty for that. While you technically still hold a high moral ground because you haven't acted on your thoughts, the reality is that you feel guilty for the thoughts that you have. Acknowledging those thoughts, vowing not to act on them, and then working to reduce them with conscious efforts can help to reduce your feelings of guilt.
Guilt For Something You Didn't Do
While some forms of guilt result from our thoughts and actions, there are also forms of guilt that focus more on what we didn't do or what we could have done differently in any given situation.
For example, you might think that you did something wrong when in reality you did nothing wrong at all. You might have a negative thought about someone or wish them ill, and then if something bad happens to them, you worry that you might have been the cause of their misfortune and felt guilt. It is important to remind yourself that you do not have that kind of power to impact someone just by thinking negatively.
Additionally, memories are faulty things, so even if you acted, it might not have been wrong at all. Before you jump to the conclusion that you are guilty and start punishing yourself, determine what happened. If you seem to frequently assume you are at fault or assign yourself a high level of responsibility, you might consider talking with a licensed therapist or counselor to address this behavior.
There are also times when you can feel guilty for not doing enough for someone. If you have a family member who is ill, you might feel guilty for not being able to be there for them in the same way due to other obligations. Psychologists have dubbed this compassion fatigue, as you try to keep doing everything that you used to do for someone despite your changing circumstances.
If you are dealing with this type of guilt, try to separate your desire to help from your guilt. Ask yourself if you are helping and risking burnout to stop feeling guilty or if it is out of a genuine desire to help. If it’s the latter, then find a way to manage your desire to help with your resources to avoid burnout. If it’s the former, talk to a trusted friend about why you are experiencing guilt or write about it (you don’t have to share your writing unless you want to). This might lead you to the root of the guilty feeling, which could lessen its hold on you.
The Problem With Guilt
While there are many types of guilt and some of them are even healthy, the reality is that all guilt can become unhealthy if you allow the guilt to fester. Feeling remorse and guilt over your actions is normal. But if you spend excessive amounts of time thinking about it, then you can put yourself into a pattern of negative thoughts.
The reality is that we tend to think higher of our thoughts and actions, imagining that they have a much greater impact than they do. It is important to make amends as necessary, but then you have to let the guilt go. Actions in the past cannot be changed. You only have control over the choices and actions you take now and in the future.
When you deal with excessive or inappropriate guilt, you could be exhibiting a symptom of depression. Excessive guilt can also be associated with childhood trauma or even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Therefore, if you are exhibiting signs of excessive guilt, it could be a sign of a deeper issue that you need to address. Working with a professional, such as a certified counselor or a licensed therapist, you can work through any potential underlying issues.
Unhealthy Guilt Impedes Self-Acceptance
Carrying unhealthy guilt can give you a warped sense of yourself, creating a sense of low self-worth, which can negatively impact your emotional well-being over time. This kind of guilt is insidious and self-destructive. You can also find your anger and resentment increasing with yourself and others to justify your actions to avoid feeling guilty.
It is important to work toward not allowing guilt to preoccupy you. When it does, over time it will negatively impact your relationships with others because you are focused on yourself and not on how you are interacting with others. Your level of empathy for others is also impacted because you are less likely to put yourself in their shoes or show a willingness to look at the situation from their perspective. If you find yourself frequently feeling guilty, then there are healthy ways to deal with the guilt instead of finding yourself paralyzed by it.
Ways To Effectively Address Guilt
If you notice a pattern of feeling guilty, then there are a few key ways to address it. First, look for evidence that you aren't doing enough or that you have done something wrong. Be willing to allow others to give their point of view to help you adjust your viewpoint.
Make a point to focus in on what you do for others and give yourself a dose of self-gratitude on a daily basis. This habit can help you to put your thoughts and actions in perspective and help you to stop beating yourself up about things you cannot change. At the same time, you can give yourself credit for what you can do for others, thus focusing on the positive instead of your failings.
It is important to note that you will make mistakes, and you need to be willing to forgive yourself for those mistakes and accept the reality that you have flaws. That self-acceptance will positively impact your self-esteem, whereas unhealthy guilt could over time be an insidious self-destructive path for your sense of self-worth.
Beware of self-judgment. Your feelings are not rational, so you need to accept how you feel without judgment, even if you do not understand or know why you are feeling the way that you do. Take positive actions to nurture yourself and give yourself a chance to acknowledge your feelings and the thoughts behind them.
Recognize that what matters is your perception of the events, which creates your feelings of guilt, and not the events themselves. Additionally, when you allow guilt to overwhelm you, it will negatively impact your wellbeing. This is because you are keeping yourself focused on the past instead of the here and now and the future.
Finally, address your thought patterns. There might be a tendency to think in black and white instead of recognizing that not every situation is all or nothing. If you look at the various aspects of a situation, you might be more willing to give yourself a break instead of feeling guilty. Not to mention, you will be open-minded and able to gain a better understanding of the other person's perspective, which means you might find that you didn't hurt them as much as you thought.
Under your guilt, however, you might be carrying emotional baggage that needs to be addressed. For instance, you could have feelings of anger, hurt, resentment, or even low self-worth. By working with an in-person or online therapist, you can address those feelings and learn ways to cope with them effectively.
If you’re considering online therapy for addressing the excessive guilt you’ve been experiencing, studies have shown that online therapy is just as effective as face-to-face therapy. For example, a literature review of 64 articles containing 14 studies on online therapy as compared to traditional therapy found the effectiveness to be comparable. Participants in the studies experienced a range of mental health conditions and received a range of therapeutic treatments.
How BetterHelp Can Support You
If you have realized that guilt is taking over your life and that guilt is overshadowing your joy of life, then contact BetterHelp to be matched with a licensed online therapist who can help you to build different coping skills and address the underlying issues fueling your guilt. Because the therapy is conducted online, you can have it at home or wherever there's an internet connection and at a time that works for you. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar issues.
“In the last 7 months or so, Lois has really helped me in reshaping my perspectives on my relationships and my involvement in them. I have seen a great deal of personal growth occur through her attention and guidance. I have been able to understand where my struggles had come from and deal with difficult ideas like blame and guilt. I'm very grateful for her time and attention and I'm confident that my personal relationships will be stronger and healthier as a result of working with Lois.”
“This therapist took me from a place where I was broken mentally and showed me how to put myself back together again without any sort of shame. I don't think people really have an understanding of just how important therapy is in transforming your entire life, until you have a good therapist. Just to be clear, not all therapists are good therapists, but you'll know one when you work with one! For anyone reading this I hope you find one that works for you.”
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