Overcoming guilt is possible, even if it’s been lingering for a while.
Guilt is a sense of regret or responsibility for thoughts, words, or actions. It can happen when you perceive you’ve harmed someone, think you’ve made a mistake, or have gone against your personal moral code of conduct.
Feeling guilty can be a positive emotion in some cases and may even help you learn from your mistakes.
But you can also feel guilty for situations that you believe were your fault or even incidents that were not your fault at all. People can also use guilt-provoking tactics to manipulate someone into doing things they’d rather not do.
Whether it’s misplaced guilt, appropriate guilt, or guilt brought on by others, there are effective ways to deal with and overcome it — even if you’ve carried it for a while.
When guilt is present, it could be a sign telling you to look closer at specific situations or behaviors. It can also help guide you in repairing any perceived wrongdoings.
Guilt can also arise from assumed and not actual responsibility for an event or situation.
Toxic guilt is a type of guilt that no longer motivates you to make positive changes.
In addition, toxic guilt can result from not knowing how to effectively manage guilty feelings and from guilt other people may place on you.
If you often find yourself allowing guilt to guide your choices or behaviors, you may be experiencing toxic guilt.
Guilt can feel heavy and difficult to offload. Determining where it’s coming from can also be a challenge.
Still, it is possible to move past guilty feelings no matter how long they’ve lingered.
Learning to manage guilt starts with identifying its source. Some questions you can ask yourself to help understand the root of your guilt include:
- What happened to cause this guilty feeling?
- What specific aspect of this do I feel guilty about?
- Did I really do something wrong, or am I just perceiving I did something wrong?
- Is someone else making me feel guilty?
- Is it in my control to fix the situation?
- Could fixing the situation help?
The answers to these questions may help you understand where the guilt is coming from and the best way to manage it.
If you have difficulty managing guilt, it might be helpful to talk with a mental health professional about your concerns.
Once you understand why you may be feeling guilt, the next step is to figure out how to manage it. Consider trying some of these strategies.
Acknowledge it exists
Sometimes guilt can remain hidden underneath other symptoms such as anxiety or sleeplessness. This can make it challenging to determine what’s really bothering you.
Identifying whether guilt is the root cause of these challenges can clarify the situation and help you figure out the next steps you need to take.
Eliminate negative self-talk
Though guilt can initiate positive action, it can also cause you to associate your behavior with who you are as a person. This can lead to inaccurate self-assessment and negative self-talk such as “I’m a bad person.”
Try to remember that although the behavior may have been less than ideal, it doesn’t define who you are.
Find out if there’s a reason to feel guilty
Guilt can at times be unwarranted because the person involved has moved on from the incident or has already forgiven you.
So, think about asking the person how they really feel. You might be surprised to find out that you’ve been carrying guilt for no reason.
Remind yourself of all that you do
When feeling guilty, you might have trouble remembering all the positive things you do. Consider making a list of all the acts of kindness you bestow onto others.
You may find that the number of positive actions on the list far outweigh any perceived transgressions.
Realize it’s OK to have needs
Guilt is often rooted in worries that you’re selfish with your time, money, or energy. However, it’s helpful to remember that no one can be everything to everybody all the time.
You also have needs, and they’re equally as valid as the needs of others.
Guilt can result from unclear boundaries. For example, you may feel guilty when trying to communicate your needs to others, or you may feel pangs of guilt when you don’t do what others ask.
Establishing healthy boundaries involves making your expectations clear. It establishes what behaviors you will accept from others and what behaviors others can expect from you.
Having these boundaries in place can help prevent guilt when dealing with others.
Sometimes, the presence of guilt may indicate the need to apologize for your behavior — a call to action, so to speak. Once these amendments are made, remorseful feelings often seem to fade away.
If you can no longer make amends to someone, maybe because they’ve passed away, you can try journaling or writing a letter to say what you couldn’t say at the time.
You can then discard it in some way — such as ripping it up or burning it — afterward as an act of closure.
Understand what you can control
It might be beneficial to examine the source of the guilt and determine what aspects you can manage.
For example, suppose you feel responsible for something that happened years ago. It might be more helpful at this point to focus on determining what you can do now to help the situation.
If nothing can change the situation, bear in mind that holding onto guilt won’t likely deliver the change you’re looking for. Try to have some compassion for yourself.
Remember that some things are unchangeable, and that’s OK!
Address any mental health challenges
If mental health conditions or past trauma are playing a role in your guilt, it might be a good idea to talk with a mental health professional.
They can work with you to identify areas you may need help with and offer strategies to manage your guilty feelings.
Acknowledge that perfection doesn’t exist
If you hold yourself to a high standard, and even the slightest infraction leaves you riddled with guilt, it might be beneficial to remind yourself that no one is perfect.
We all make mistakes.
Making mistakes doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It simply means that you’re learning and growing as you navigate through this thing called life — just like everyone else.
Getting rid of guilt may require self-reflection to identify where the remorse is coming from and why you’re feeling it. It also involves determining if you’re experiencing misplaced guilt, toxic guilt, or actual regret for something you’ve done.
Whether your guilt is justified or based on imagined responsibility, remember that you’re human, and we all make mistakes.
Try to acknowledge your feelings, make amends if necessary, and then forgive yourself. If you need help letting go of persistent guilty feelings, consider reaching out to a mental health professional.
Not sure where to start? You can check out Psych Central’s hub for finding mental health support.