The cycle of guilt is the ultimate Catch-22 situation, an emotional prison where no matter what you do, you end up feeling bad. I know this place, because it’s taken me weeks to write this article, and all the while I’ve been running laps on the hamster wheel of guilt.

And it’s not just me. The subject has entered the therapy room quite a lot this summer; many people seem to want off the wheel, to break the cycle and dump the feelings of heaviness and burden.

The cycle is simple and composed of three components: should, action/inaction, and guilt. It doesn’t matter where you begin, as these things influence and feed off each other, but for clarity’s sake let’s say that you become aware of a “should,” as in “I should call my mother.” The “should” stems from a desire to gain and maintain approval; this includes self-approval as well as approval from others.

Out of this “should” comes the opportunity for either action or inaction. When action is taken, it involves following the script and doing what you think the other person, group, organization, and perhaps even a part of yourself wants you to do. The action of calling your mother keeps the peace and attempts to sidestep guilty feelings. Inaction means shutting down, holding back, or staying stuck, also in order to avoid guilt. For example, when I was writing this article, I often went into inaction mode because I felt paralyzed by the pressure I put on myself.

And no matter what you do, the guilt is unavoidable. The whole point about the cycle is that you aren’t living life in your own best interest anymore. You’re running on the wheel, but you’re letting someone else spin it. For as long as you’re in the guilt cycle, there is no escape, because all decisions lead to the same conclusion in this closed circuit: you’re going to feel guilt.

Fundamentally, guilt is an issue around self-acceptance. What happens in certain relationships is that we are loved conditionally — you have to do something for someone in order for them to love you. If the other’s wishes aren’t followed, approval and love are withheld.

Unfortunately, this is a very easy lesson to take on board. Eventually, if this pattern is repeated long enough, we begin to exert the same measures on ourselves and love ourselves only conditionally. We internally say, “If I do this, only then am I worthy of self-respect and love.”

Additionally, we may continue to look outside for approval and acceptance, in fulfilling other people’s wishes over our own. In fact, after a while we may not even think we have needs anymore, or believe are allowed to have them (let alone act on them). In other words, we enter the guilt cycle. And round and round we go.

A former client, Rachel, had this kind of relationship with her older sister. Rachel wanted to “get along” with her older sister and was terrified of disappointing her. She spoke of needing to follow her sister’s rules and do her bidding in order to receive her love and emotional support, as well as escape her anger.

If Rachel was unable to fulfill a request or didn’t do it to her sister’s liking, she would feel immediately a deep sense of guilt. She experienced this as a heavy weight in her chest and abdomen and acknowledged that it was making her physically ill, with regular headaches and stomach pains. Her confidence was also at an all-time low.

The road to self-acceptance is very much a process. One of the first steps for Rachel was understanding her guilt cycle. Specifically, she identified that she carried around her sister’s disappointment and frustration whenever she felt guilty. Her sister was passing along her feelings, and Rachel was the one carrying them. After all, that’s what guilt is: carrying around someone’s else’s emotional baggage. It’s what the guilt cycle is all about.

In time, Rachel began to realize that she was in a no-win situation with her sister. The approval she sought needed to be generated and given from within. We spoke about her inner critic, and Rachel recognized her sister’s voice there in its harsh judgment.

All of these insights marked the beginning of great change for Rachel. In becoming aware of the nature of her pattern, she began to see that there was a way out of the cycle.