Guilt is experienced daily by most people. The nagging voice in your head after lying to your spouse. A huge weight on your shoulders after missing a deadline at work. Prolonged tearfulness after being late to pick up the kids during a rainstorm.
Some believe guilt is a waste of time. Others believe it can be helpful.
It’s often regarded as something negative to avoid, but feelings of guilt can have positive effects. It depends on your reason for feeling guilty and how you handle those feelings.
What is Guilt?
Guilt is a self-conscious emotion. It happens as a result of previous behaviors and requires self-awareness and self-reflection.
Adaptive guilt is helpful. It relates to your understanding of wrongdoing and your responsibility to do right by others. Maladaptive guilt, on the other hand, is often negative and unhelpful. It’s what most people think of when they think of guilt.
You can feel guilt in many areas of your life, including:
You might feel like you don’t do enough for the people in your life or like the things you do aren’t good enough. You might feel guilty for not being around or reaching out more often. Feelings of guilt can even result from not taking care of yourself.
Where Does Guilt Come From?
Guilt is brought on by mistakes or bad behavior and is linked with your desire to correct the wrongdoing and improve in the future. The behavior could be an act you committed or think you committed, not doing something you should have done or said you would do, or having thoughts you believe are morally wrong.
Other triggers of guilt include:
- Perfectionism: Not being the perfect partner, friend, employee, parent, daughter, etc.
- Guilt trips: Others might manipulate you by using your guilt against you
- Guilt for own state-of-being: Having or needing help with an illness or otherwise
- Inadequacy: Believing you fail to meet expectations set by yourself or others
- Putting yourself first: Taking care of yourself instead of focusing on others needs
- Survivor’s guilt: Guilt from surviving disaster or trauma when others weren’t so lucky
To learn more about why you feel guilty, check out BetterHelp’s resources: https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/guilt/.
Effects of Guilt
Guilt is a powerful emotion. Messing up is human nature, but the guilt that follows can create emotional and physical mayhem.
Guilt helps you own your mistakes and motivates you to improve. Or it might consume you with thoughts of what else you could have done.
It’s common to feel heaviness in your chest, have difficulty concentrating, or experience sadness with guilt. You might also experience:
- Stomach pain and digestive issues
- Muscle tension
Feelings of guilt tend to go away when you do something about it, but unresolved guilt can make you irritable, clingy, or anxious.
Some people feel excessive guilt for the harm they caused, which can linger even after the mistake has been forgiven and forgotten by others. Excessive guilt affects your self-esteem and personal development and makes it harder to work toward goals or move on after you face setbacks.
Excessive guilt is also linked with mental health conditions like depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
8 Tips to Manage Your Guilt
Luckily, there are plenty of ways to manage your guilt with awareness and a little work on your end.
- Acknowledge Your Guilt
Don’t push it away. Doing so can cause it to build up and make it worse over time.
Take a few minutes to get familiar with your feelings. Write or say why you feel guilty and let yourself feel any emotions that come from it (frustration, regret, anger). Name and feel your feelings without criticism or judgment. Accept them.
- Explore Your Guilt
Review what’s making you feel guilty and why.
It can come in response to things that you had little or nothing to do with. Was what happened beyond your control? Determine if your behavior was appropriate or acceptable. It’s important to know when you bear responsibility and when you’re unnecessarily blaming yourself.
- Make Amends
Determine what you can do to make amends.
Whether you speak to the wronged party in person or over the phone or write them a letter is up to you, but an effective apology should acknowledge your role, show remorse, avoid making excuses, and ask for forgiveness.
They may or may not forgive you, now or ever. But issuing a sincere apology helps you heal. It holds you accountable and allows you to express yourself.
Apologize, and acknowledge when you’ve done all you can.
- Learn From It
Don’t obsess over your mistakes, learn from them.
Guilt is a sign your actions were misaligned with your values and goals. It can show you where you need to make changes to feel happier with yourself.
Reflect on it. Acknowledge what you know now that you didn’t know before. Remind yourself that you can’t undo the past– what’s done is done. Just don’t make the same mistake again.
- Practice Gratitude
Instead of feeling guilty for needing or accepting help, show gratitude. Thank those who support you. Make your appreciation clear, explain how it helped you, and commit to returning the favor when you can.
- Show Yourself Kindness
Too much self-punishment is bad. And allowing yourself to stew in guilt won’t change anything– all it does is make you feel worse.
Consider whether you’re being too hard on yourself or have unreasonably high standards. Replace negative self-talk and acknowledge your worth. You’re not a bad person because you messed up.
Consider how you would treat a friend who made the same mistake. Consider apologizing to yourself for being too harsh.
- Put Yourself First
You have to take care of yourself to take care of others. Make time for your own needs regularly. Schedule it if you have to. That may mean prioritizing tasks to determine what’s most important, what you can delegate or even give up, and what could be done more efficiently. It could also mean setting boundaries to avoid guilt trips.
Do things you enjoy. Happier people tend to beat themselves up less and feel better about life in general.
- Know When to Seek Help
It’s often far easier to identify a problem than it is to solve one, and sometimes an outside perspective can help you manage your guilt.
It can be difficult to ask for help for fear of what others think or you believe it shows weakness. You might be afraid of rejection or feel guilty about your guilt.
The truth is, guilt can isolate you. Talk to someone you trust. Loved ones can offer the support and compassion you need but don’t show yourself.
It may be a good idea to talk to a mental health professional if your guilt is excessive or related to intrusive thoughts, depression, trauma, or abuse, if you tend to feel bad about things you can’t control, or if forgiveness isn’t or can’t be extended.
When you feel guilty about something, it’s important to face it, deal with it, and learn from it. Allowing it to fester prevents you from growth. Find ways to let go of guilt and get on with your amazing life.
About the Author:
Marie Miguel has been a writing and research expert for nearly a decade, covering a variety of health- related topics. Currently, she is contributing to the expansion and growth of a free online mental health resource with BetterHelp.com. With an interest and dedication to addressing stigmas associated with mental health, she continues to specifically target subjects related to anxiety and depression.