Everyone feels guilt now and again. But when excessive or persistent guilt affects your daily life, there are strategies that can help.
Everyone makes mistakes and there are some situations when feeling guilty is appropriate. Learning from missteps and moving on with the hope that you can right your wrongs or make better decisions in the future is a common human response to guilt or remorse.
But if you find yourself asking, “Why do I feel guilty all the time?” you may be caught in a mindset of excessive or persistent guilt.
Feeling guilty all the time can contribute to developing anxiety and depression, but there are ways to manage these feelings so they don’t get in the way of living your life as you want to.
Guilt is an emotion that comes from how your actions affect those around you. Most of us rely on our understanding of right and wrong — our conscience — to stay in line with our morals, ethics, and values.
You may feel guilty when doing something that doesn’t live up to your own standards and values. And while feeling guilty can be agonizing, it does serve a social purpose.
The memory of feeling guilty may remind you to act respectfully or morally and “do the right thing” in the future.
But feeling guilty all the time is not productive and may be called persistent or excessive guilt.
Making mistakes is part of being human. With excessive guilt, ordinary feelings of remorse or guilt are magnified and can seriously affect many aspects of your life.
Guilt is unique to each person, so there are many reasons why you might feel guilty all the time.
Guilt usually comes up when you act or think in a way that goes against:
- your beliefs
- family values
- social norms
- workplace ethics
Persistent and excessive guilt may contribute to:
- low self-esteem
- feeling like you aren’t a good person
- excessively worrying about others’ perceptions
- sensitivity to criticism
- weak or poor boundaries
- a betrayal of personal values or core beliefs
- feeling overwhelmed by simple decisions
Because excessive guilt can leave you ruminating on “should haves” and “could haves,” it can contribute to developing certain mental health conditions, such as:
- Anxiety disorders. Persistent worries or fears are a feature of anxiety disorders, which can lead to feelings of guilt. Guilt itself can also lead to anxiety symptoms, including racing thoughts, feelings of unease, and physical symptoms like rapid heart rate and difficulty breathing.
- Depression. Feeling guilty all the time may lead to low mood or depression. Depression can involve low motivation and a lack of interest in things you used to enjoy, weight changes, poor concentration, sleep issues, and feelings of hopelessness.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Excessive guilt may contribute to or worsen existing OCD, including intrusive thoughts or obsessions that lead to unwanted behaviors or compulsions.
- Dysphoria. Dysphoria is a profound state of unease, dissatisfaction, or unhappiness that can accompany anxiety and depression. Signs of dysphoria include fatigue, apathy, unease, and worry. Negative, unhelpful thinking can also be related to dysphoria, leading to an unrealistic outlook on life and your future.
If you already live with anxiety or depression, you may also be more likely to experience excessive feelings of guilt.
If guilt is challenging for you, there are ways you can manage these unhelpful feelings.
Consider these steps to cope with feeling guilty all the time:
- Identify your triggers for guilt. Figuring out when you feel guilty and why can help give you some clarity. Are you responsible for what you feel guilty about? Or are you feeling guilty because of something you don’t have power over?
- Practice self-awareness. You can become more self-aware if you start considering those times when you’re thinking you “should have” or “could have” done something differently. Are these thoughts based on your beliefs and values? Or are they based on what you think society, family, or friends expect of you?
- Write it out. Journaling may help you gain insight into your emotions. It can also help with your self-awareness and naming your triggers.
- Talk it out. If something you’ve done — or think you have done — is weighing heavily on you, having an open conversation with the person you feel you’ve wronged might lift a great weight from your shoulders. If you can’t talk to that person directly, you could talk to a friend about it.
- Practice self-compassion. Maybe one of the most important strategies is practicing self-compassion. Everyone messes up and wishes they would have handled situations differently sometimes. Being unkind or cruel to yourself can’t change the past. You’re only human.
- Learn from your mistakes. You can take any mistakes that bring on guilt and learn from them. Learning from experiences can help you not repeat your mistakes, creating a cycle of mistakes and excess guilt. You can always do things differently in the future with knowledge from the past.
Adding a mindfulness practice may help you gain greater self-awareness and self-compassion when dealing with your guilt.
Staying present in each moment can also help you slow down and make balanced decisions so you feel less guilt later on.
Talking with a mental health professional can also help you address persistent guilt. If you’re still feeling guilty all the time after trying some of these steps, consider reaching out to a professional.
A therapist can help you:
- work through your guilt
- notice and manage triggers
- learn to let your values inform your decisions and actions, rather than guilty feelings
Support groups can offer you an option for talking to peers about feelings of guilt. It can often be incredibly helpful to talk with people who have similar experiences in order to heal and grow.
Dealing with guilt is not always easy. Having constant, excessive guilt can feel agonizing. But if you’re feeling stuck, you’re not alone.
There are many ways you can learn to manage your guilt, such as:
- self-help strategies
- talk therapy
- support groups
If you’re ready to get help but don’t know where to start, check out Psych Central’s guide to finding mental support.