How to handle feelings of guilt
Understanding your guilt can help you better manage it
Guilt is an emotion everyone is familiar with. You usually feel it when you think you did or said something wrong. Dealing with feelings of guilt can be difficult and might take some time to work through.
What is guilt?
People can experience guilt when their conscience is telling them they did something wrong. There are two types of guilt: healthy guilt and unhealthy guilt.
Guilt can sometimes be a healthy emotion when it relates to something you have or haven’t done, and reminds you to try and fix it, apologise for it, and learn from it.
For example, if you forget your friend’s birthday, healthy guilt might remind you to apologise and put it in your calendar for next year so you don’t forget again.
Guilt can become unhealthy when you are having irrational feelings about a situation that isn’t your fault or you have no control over, by expecting too much of yourself (this is quite common), or from someone else trying to make you feel guilty
For example, if a friend failed an exam that you did really well in and you may feel guilty despite the fact that you had no control over how your friend performed. Another example is if you feel guilty for not spending enough time with friends while you are studying for important exams. Sometimes you can expect too much of yourself, or others can expect too much from you. When these expectations exist, they can result in feelings of guilt when they are not met.
What can feelings of guilt do to you?
Guilt can have positive and negative influences on your behaviour. Healthy guilt encourages you to consider the consequences of your actions and be the best version of yourself. Unhealthy guilt, however, may cause you to be overly hard on yourself about ways you should have or could have behaved in the past.
Encourage you to take responsibility for your actions
Not accepting responsibility for an issue you may have played a part in can leave you feeling guilty. By acknowledging your responsibility you could feel some relief and can then move on to making amends.
Encourage you to try to fix the problem
Healthy guilt should remind you that you did something wrong, or didn't do something that you should have. These feelings of guilt may encourage you to fix the problem as best you can.
After doing what you can to make amends you should accept that people might need time to forgive you but that doesn’t mean you shouldn't forgive yourself and learn from the experience. If you are still feeling guilty after you have done all you can do to make up for it, you may be experiencing unhealthy guilt.
Make you become overly responsible
If you are experiencing unhealthy guilt over time it may have negative effects on your mental health. You might try to make sure everything is ‘perfect’ for everyone and put unrealistic pressure on yourself to keep everyone happy. Trying to please everyone all the time is not sustainable, and may take its toll on you and others.
Leave you feeling overwhelmed
If you are feeling unhealthy guilt and trying to keep everyone happy all the time, eventually you might feel overwhelmed by the responsibility you put on yourself. This may:
- Cause you to withdraw, avoiding people and social situations when possible
- Affect your decision making
- Leave you feeling stressed
- Impact on your other emotions and your ability to feel them
Cause feelings of anxiety
Feeling guilty for a period of time might lead to feelings of anxiety. If you are experiencing anxiety you might feel excessive nervousness, fear and worry. Anxiety can affect you in several ways and impact on both your mental and physical health.
If you think you might be experiencing anxiety have a look at our article on dealing with anxiety for more information.
What can you do about it?
You can follow some practical steps to help deal with your guilt.
Identify why you feel guilty
By identifying where your feelings of guilt are coming from you can check if you are feeling healthy or unhealthy guilt. There are practical things you can do to help with your feelings of healthy guilt. Unhealthy guilt might be more difficult to deal with and may take longer to work through.
If you identified why you are feeling guilty you could start by apologising to the person who you think you wronged. Depending on how bad the issue was they might not accept your apology straight away. They might need time to think about it, or want to see you making amends and trying to fix the problem.
Try to fix the problem
This might be simple but in some cases you might need help fixing the problem. You may need to ask the person who you have wronged for help. This can be daunting but in the long run it is better because you can avoid making the problem worse. A friend or family member who knows about the situation might also be able to offer advice.
Recognise that you made a mistake and that you have done all you can do to fix it. Accept that it might take a while for things to go back to normal with the person you have wronged. If you can show them you are sorry and give them time to process this, they will hopefully forgive you.
Learn from it
When you have done what you can to fix the situation reflect on what happened. Learn from the mistake you made, from how you fixed it and from how the person you apologised to reacted to it all.
To learn more about conflict in relationships have a look at our article Dealing with conflicts and fights in relationships.
What to do if your feelings of guilt are out of control
If you are experiencing a lot of unhealthy guilt and are struggling to handle it, here are some things you could do:
Check your guilt
Ask yourself some questions about your guilt:
- Have you done all you can do to fix the situation?
- Are you feeling guilty about something that is out of your control?
- Is your guilt based on someone else's expectations?
- Does the guilt you feel correspond to what you did?
These questions might help you realise that your guilt is unhealthy guilt.
Talk about it with someone
Talking to someone about your guilt will offer an objective opinion on it. They might help you realise if you are feeling unnecessarily guilty. Saying a problem out loud can also help you to see it differently and make it seem more manageable. You could talk to a family member, a friend, or consider going for counselling to speak to someone in confidence.
Identify why you are feeling unrealistic pressure
If you are putting unnecessary pressure on yourself it might be influenced by an external factor. For example a parent, guardian or friend might be expecting too much of you. Try to talk to them and explain how you are feeling. They may not have realised the affect their behaviour was having on you.
Some external factors are harder to deal with. For example, if you feel guilty every time you spend money because your parents or guardians are struggling financially. This can be tricky but discussing it with them might help. They might outline what they see as ‘fair’ spending and what they see as excessive. This way you know what you can spend and don't need to feel guilty about it.
For advice on dealing with conflict with your parents our article How can I get along with my parents? might help.
Find out if your guilt is related to something else
You may be experiencing irrational guilt as a result of a different problem. Try to identify what else is going on in your life that could be causing you difficulty, when this problem is resolved it may help to lighten your feelings of irrational guilt.