What is guilt?
Our sense of guilt is difficult to describe, but we all experience it. It is possible to feel guilty for something you have thought or done. If your beliefs, culture, or family do not align with your thoughts and actions, you may feel guilty. Guilt may be associated with negative associations, but it also serves a positive function.
When you feel guilty, you are more likely to make morally upright decisions. You will feel guilty if your actions cause negative results or emotions, and doing the same thing again will make you feel guiltier. It is common to see guilt and shame mentioned in the same sentence because they help you make moral decisions.
When guilt becomes excessive, however, it becomes sour. Untreated anxiety can lead to depressive symptoms and anxiety obsessions. Most guilt comes from within, but is usually conditioned by outside factors – so with the right habits, it can be unlearned. You must know the symptoms of excessive guilt to unlearn it.
Separating guilt from other disorders can be difficult because guilt is entangled with them. You can recognize and overcome excessive guilt by understanding how it contributes to disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and depression.
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Signs of guilt
When guilt is linked to OCD, anxiety, and depression, a variety of symptoms develop. You can experience physical symptoms of guilt including problems sleeping and digesting, as well as tension in your muscles.
It is important to understand that guilt manifests in your everyday actions and social interactions as well as your emotional state. Even if you find reasons for certain thoughts, guilt may very well be the cause. Guilt symptoms include:
- Knowing how each action will affect you
- Feeling overwhelmed by the possibility of making the wrong decision
- Feeling low about yourself
- Being selfish until it affects others
- Avoiding all your feelings
Guilt and OCD
There is a two-way relationship between guilt and other disorders. Either it causes a disorder or it perpetuates one. Guilt is closely related to OCD and depression. There are repetitive obsessions and compulsions that only occur in OCD. OCD can be enabled or preceded by guilt.
Feeling guilty may keep you from letting go of a thought or action for a long time. Guilt may cause you to become obsessed with the action you took or the thought that crossed your mind. Your guilt is eased by making reparations to make amends for it. It might never be over the constant obsession with guilt and the desire to make it right.
Another alternative is to develop an already ingrained obsession. It is not uncommon to suffer from guilt if you do not wash the dishes every night, for example, if you are obsessive about having a clean home. When you break a code that dictates your beliefs, you feel guilty.
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Guilt and depression
The relationship between guilt and depression is similar to that between guilt and OCD. The feeling of guilt leads to depressive symptoms. Depressive feelings have a negative impact on your self-esteem when you feel bad about them. These “meta-emotions” aren’t necessarily negative, but they can be. It is possible to feel guilty when you feel good.
Usually, guilt is an irrational emotion. It is your perception of failure that ferments in your mind. These emotions then become reflected in your actions, causing these perceptions to persist.
Depression and guilt are inextricably linked and form a negative feedback loop. It is often difficult to control them as they feed off one another until they become overwhelming. The key to escaping this parasitic relationship is to recognize it.
How to stop feeling guilty
Most likely, you’ve made a mistake or two throughout your lifetime.
Since mistakes are a normal part of human development, most people have made them. Still, guilt may creep into your consciousness and cause physical and emotional turmoil.
The feeling of guilt is often described as the nauseating twist in your stomach that comes along with the knowledge of having hurt someone else. Your memories of what occurred and your fear that others will discover what happened may cause you to criticize yourself repeatedly.
Guilt is a powerful emotion.
You are motivated to improve your behavior when you feel guilt. This might also cause you to dwell on the things you could have done differently.
You might experience intense guilt if you’ve never been able to apologize for a mistake.
Even if it may sometimes be a means of growth, guilt can hold you back – even after others have forgotten or forgiven your actions.
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Name your guilt
A temporary solution to your guilt problem might be to ignore it or push it away. If you ignore it, you may reason, eventually, it will pass away. Is that right?
No, that’s not true.
The accumulation and intensification of guilt can make you feel worse over time, similar to other emotions.
If you refuse to admit your guilt, it might temporarily stop your guilt from interfering with your everyday life, but hiding your feelings is not a lasting solution. It is necessary to accept guilt first, despite how unpleasant it is, to truly deal with it.
Here’s an exercise to try:
- Allow yourself some time to be quiet.
- Keep a journal to record your thoughts.
- Think back to what occurred: “I feel guilty for yelling at my children.” “I broke a promise.” “I cheated.”
- Open your mind to feelings of guilt, frustration, regret, anger, and anything else that might be rising. It can be helpful to write down what you feel.
- Be curious about your feelings instead of judging them. Finding out what you feel can help you get a better handle on what’s going on. It isn’t always easy to decipher what’s going on.
You can get relief from guilt by practicing regular mindfulness meditations and journaling. You can gain an understanding of emotions through these practices, which can help you deal with them more effectively.
Explore the source
Recognizing guilt’s origin will help you to understand how to handle it.
Feeling guilty when you realize you have done something wrong is common, but guilt can also develop in response to things you had little or no control over.
If you admit your mistakes to yourself, it’s still important to own up to them. But it’s also crucial to be aware when you blame yourself unnecessarily for things you can’t control.
The feeling of guilt is often associated with things no one can blame. If you break up with someone who still cares for you, you might feel guilty, or if you have a good job while your best friend cannot find a job.
A sense of guilt can also arise if you believe you haven’t met the expectations you’ve set for yourself or others. This feeling of guilt isn’t indicative of the effort you’ve put into overcoming the difficulties that prevent you from reaching your goals.
Guilt can be caused by:
- Traumas and disasters
- Values you hold and choices you’ve made clash
- Health concerns or mental illness
- Feelings you think you shouldn’t have/
- Being selfish when your focus should be on others
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Make amends and apologize
You can begin to repair damage after wrongdoing by apologizing in a sincere manner. When you apologize, you convey your regret and remorse to the person you hurt and let them know why you will not make the same mistake again.
There is no guarantee that you will receive forgiveness right away – or ever – since apologies do not always restore trust.
Still, apologizing, even simply, helps you heal because it allows you to express yourself and hold yourself responsible after sinning.
If you want to apologize effectively, you should:
- Recognize your role
- Be remorseful
- Don’t make excuses
- Please ask forgiveness
- Your actions should be followed by showing regret.
- No amount of apology can make a difference if the problem doesn’t get fixed.
- Committing to change means making amends.
Perhaps your loved ones feel guilty that you are not spending enough time with them or do not check-in when they need assistance. If you apologized, you might then ask “What can I do to help?” to demonstrate your desire to change. Is there anything I can do to help?”
Sometimes it may not be possible for you to apologize directly. Try writing a letter instead if you can’t contact the person you hurt. It is still beneficial to put your apology down on paper, even if they never see it.
Perhaps you should apologize to yourself as well. When you make an honest mistake, instead of punishing yourself for it, remember this: Nobody is perfect.
Rather than blaming yourself in the future, make amends by being kind to yourself.
Learn from the past
You can’t fix every problem, and you might lose some of your most cherished relationships or friends. A feeling of guilt coupled with sadness about someone or something you’ve lost is hard to escape.
You must accept the past before you can move on. You can’t fix what happened by reminiscing about your memories.
The past can’t be rewritten by replaying different scenarios, but the past can be influenced by consideration of what you have learned:
- How did the mistake occur? Examine how your actions were triggered and how your feelings led you to take action.
- Do you know what you would do differently now?
- How would you describe yourself based on your actions? Is there anything you can improve on?
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Especially when you’re struggling, feeling drained, or suffering from health concerns, it’s pretty common to feel guilty for needing assistance. Relationships provide a foundation for building a community that can offer support.
Imagine the reverse situation. If your loved ones needed help and support, you would probably be there for them. Most likely, you don’t want them to feel guilty either.
It’s okay to ask for help. You can’t face life alone.
You can cultivate gratitude instead of guilt when you struggle by:
- Gratitude for loved ones’ kindness
- Clearly expressing your appreciation
- Taking advantage of any opportunities they have provided you
- Committing to repay this support once you’re on stronger ground
Replace negative self-talk with self-compassion
Making mistakes doesn’t make you a bad person – everyone makes mistakes from time to time.
It is very easy to criticize yourself harshly when you feel guilty, but lecturing yourself about how catastrophically you screwed up will not change anything. External consequences may follow, but self-punishment usually leaves the most emotional scars.
You may want to ask yourself how you would respond if you were a friend in the same situation. Perhaps you’ll tell them how much you appreciate them and tell them about the good things they’ve done.
You deserve the same kindness.
People are complex, as are the circumstances in which they find themselves. While you may be at fault for your mistake, other individuals might also share some responsibility.
It is easier to remain objective during difficult circumstances when you remind yourself of your worth, hence preventing emotional distress from causing you to lose perspective.
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You can benefit from guilt
Your sense of guilt can alert you to choices that aren’t compatible with your values. You can use it instead of looking at it as an overwhelming burden.
Guilt can be an effective tool in guiding you to the parts of yourself you want to improve.
A few of your lies may have been caught by someone. Somehow you’re always busy and so don’t have time to spend with your family.
By addressing those circumstances, you can move forward on a path more aligned with your goals.
It might motivate you to spend more time with your friends if you feel guilty for not spending enough time with them. It might be beneficial for you to devote one night each week to your partner when stress is distracting you from your relationship.
You should also pay attention to what guilt says about you.
You have empathy if you regret hurting someone else and were not intending to harm. Change might involve avoiding repeating those mistakes in the future.
You may find it beneficial to seek the input of a professional if you often feel guilty about things outside of your control.
Self-forgiveness is an important element of self-compassion. All humans make mistakes, as do we all when we forgive ourselves. When you own up to your mistakes, you can move on instead of letting them define your future. Your imperfect self is loved and treated with kindness when you accept it.
Four steps lead to self-forgiveness:
- You are responsible for your actions.
- Feel regret and remorse without becoming ashamed.
- If you’ve caused any harm, you must make amends.
- Take care of yourself and have faith in your ability to change.
Talk to people you trust
Guilt is a difficult subject to talk about, which is understandable. There’s nothing easy about admitting mistakes you regret. Therefore, guilt can cause isolation, and loneliness and isolation can prevent the healing process.
Many times, you’ll discover that others will not judge you for what happened. Many loved ones can offer support for you during this difficult time.
Caretakers are generally kind and compassionate. Sharing unpleasant emotions can also relieve tension.
Share your story with friends and family to feel less alone. People have all done something they regret, so they have all felt guilt at one time or another.
The ability to see things from a different perspective can also make a huge difference, especially if you are dealing with survivor guilt or guilt related to something you have no control over.
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Talk with a therapist
A heavy burden of guilt is not always easy to lift. People who experience guilt relating to finding it hard to cope with their feelings of guilt.
Fear of judgment makes it difficult to open up about guilt. It is usually worse to avoid these feelings.
A professional support service might be a good next step if you find yourself unable to stay present with yourself and others due to an undercurrent of misery, rumination, and regret.
Therapy can help you identify and address sources of guilt, explore effective coping skills, and develop greater self-compassion.
The bottom line
It is time to let the guilt go. Putting your resilience to work and building confidence to make better choices can help you let go of the past.
Feel free to ask for help if you’re struggling to overcome guilt. It is possible to move forward after therapy by learning how to forgive oneself.