Guilt is an emotion that relates to a person’s sense of right and wrong. Most people experience guilt after making a mistake or doing something they regret.
The effects of guilt are often uncomfortable. They might include sadness, sorrow, or physical discomfort. It’s not uncommon for people to be angry or frustrated with themselves. But these effects can guide people toward change.
People who have strong feelings of guilt may find themselves stuck on these feelings. Chronic or excessive guilt can be hard to overcome. If feelings of guilt have a negative effect on your life, and you are struggling to work through them alone, a compassionate counselor can offer help and support. A therapist or counselor can help examine and sort through guilty feelings, uncover any guilt that is out of proportion to the mistake, and help the person address the guilt in a productive way. It’s also possible, in therapy, to explore ways to fix a mistake or wrong and work on preventing it in the future.
Guilt is an emotion, so rather than thinking of it as something good or something bad, it may be more helpful to consider its effects. Because guilt relates to a person’s moral code, guilt can act as a sort of check that helps someone recognize the effects of choices they’ve made. If the choice had a negative impact, they might feel regret and decide to do better in the future.
Consider a person who runs a red light. If nothing happens, they most likely feel relieved. “No one was there, and I didn’t get a ticket,” a person might think. But then they might think about other possibilities. “What if I hit another car? What if someone was crossing the street and I couldn’t stop in time?” They may begin to feel bad when considering other things that could have happened and tell themselves they’ll be more careful in the future.
In this way, guilt is linked to empathy and a feeling of responsibility for how actions affect others. A 2018 study found that people who were more prone to guilt were more likely to be trustworthy. When a person’s actions affected others, they were more likely to act in ways that were sensitive of the effects of their choices.
Guilt isn’t always helpful, though. When guilt results from a person’s belief that they should do more or be better at something, rather than a mistake they made, it can cause distress.
For example, a busy parent may feel guilty when they pick up pizza for dinner, leave housework undone, or speak sharply to their child when stressed. They may believe a “good” parent should be able to take care of the cooking and cleaning and never snap at their children. Even if they know it isn’t possible for them to take care of everything around the house all the time, they still might feel guilt, since their reality conflicts with their ideal of a good parent. When this kind of guilt isn’t addressed, it can have a negative impact on life.
Research links guilt to mental health concerns. A 2015 study found that preschool-onset depression was strongly linked to excessive guilt. A 2013 study found shame to be linked to social anxiety. Though guilt was not correlated with this issue, it’s important to note that excessive or chronic guilt can contribute to feelings of shame. Guilt can also cause people to struggle with romantic or professional relationships and day-to-day life. When not addressed, feelings of guilt can build and lead a person to feel worthless, discouraged, or hopeless.
Sometimes guilt can become so strong it makes it difficult for a person to get through each day. They may struggle to connect with their loved ones, maintain a relationship, or stay focused at work or school. Over time, they may also have feelings of anxiety and depression, or struggle to recognize their own self-worth. People try to cope with guilt by rationalizing their actions or telling themselves the behavior didn’t really matter. This can help ease guilty feelings temporarily. But if guilt isn’t addressed, it’s unlikely to go away for good.
Talking over what happened with a trusted friend or loved one can help reduce guilt. Owning up to a mistake and apologizing may be enough to ease guilty feelings, in some cases.
But when feelings of guilt affect daily life or relationships, it’s important to reach out for help. A therapist can’t fix your mistakes or change you. They can help you work through emotions and explore ways to create change. Therapists can also help normalize guilt. If you feel worthless or believe you are a bad person, a therapist or counselor can help you come to terms with the fact that every person makes mistakes from time to time.
If guilt relates to something that is not your fault, such as in the case of survivor’s guilt, a therapist can also help you work through these feelings. This may help reduce their impact on your life. If you often feel guilty for things you have no responsibility for, you may be able to overcome this pattern with the support of a therapist. In therapy, people can also learn to develop greater self-compassion, which can help reduce guilt.
Therapy can often help people work through guilt. But the most helpful type of therapy will most likely to depend on the cause of the guilt. In all cases, a therapist is likely to begin by working with the person seeking help to understand what contributes to their guilt.
- Chronic guilt linked to an overly strict upbringing or other family-related factors might improve after these underlying factors are uncovered and addressed in treatment.
- Treatment for posttraumatic stress may help people who experience survivor’s guilt after trauma.
- Guilt linked to a mistake or choice may improve after the choice is addressed or the behavior is changed. For example, a person who was unfaithful in a relationship may (with a willing partner) decide to attend couples counseling and recommit to the relationship.
- Feelings of guilt and shame linked to mental health issues such as anxiety may improve when the condition is treated.
- People with guilt linked to abuse, assault, or other traumatic violence may struggle to accept that what happened wasn’t their fault. Trauma therapy may help a person to reframe the event, understand they did nothing wrong, and begin to heal from the trauma.
- People with mental health issues may feel guilty over their actions or behavior, though they may not be able to fully help them. A person with depression can’t help feeling depressed but might feel guilty about the effects their depression has on their relationships with family and friends. Counseling can help treat both the mental health concern and help the person develop greater compassion toward themselves.
Counseling for guilt and shame typically involves the concepts of acceptance and forgiveness. It’s natural to make mistakes, and sometimes these mistakes can hurt others. Whenever possible, attempting to fix the mistake or otherwise making amends may be a good first step. Doing so can reduce feelings of guilt.
When it isn’t possible to make amends or repair damage caused, a person might feel severe, lasting guilt. They may be unable to forgive themselves because they can’t earn forgiveness from the wronged person. Therapy can help people learn to accept what happened, forgive themselves for their part in it, and consider how they might make a different choice in the future. They may still carry unresolved feelings about the event, but this process is still likely to help improve some symptoms and effects of guilt.
Most people experience guilt. Sometimes it doesn’t fully go away. A person who makes a mistake may continue to feel guilt throughout life, even if they apologize, fix the damage, and are forgiven for the harm they caused. Therapy can help address these feelings. Having self-compassion can also help.
Self-compassion practices can be learned in therapy, but it’s also possible to develop greater self-compassion alone. Kristin Neff, a leading self-compassion researcher, has developed several self-compassion exercises that can be helpful when working with guilty feelings.
- Take a break. During the break, accept what you are feeling. Accept that it is tough or challenging. Then ask yourself how you can take care of yourself right then.
- Ask yourself how you’d treat a friend experiencing the same struggle. What would you say to that friend? Try using those same words for yourself.
- Write a letter or journal entry to yourself, offering acceptance, love, and compassion.
- Reframe negative self-talk. Instead of reminding yourself about your mistake and how bad it was, simply agree that you messed up and tell yourself you’ll do better next time. Remind yourself about what you’ve learned or how you’ve grown as a result of the choice you made. If your choice had any positive effects, it might help to remind yourself of those, too. Remember that guilt isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
- Therapy to address caregiver guilt: Mei, 41, recently helped her mother move into a nursing home. Mei’s mother can’t walk well and is beginning to develop dementia, so it’s become too difficult for Mei to take care of her while also taking care of her family. Mei feels guilty, and her mother is angry. She insists Mei visit her every day. If Mei visits when her mother has a clear mind, her mother lectures her about her duty to her parents and tells her she isn’t a good daughter. The visits distress Mei, but she feels like she owes them to her mother. After several weeks, Mei’s feelings of guilt increase. She has trouble sleeping, snaps at her husband and children, and feels sick and restless whenever she thinks about her mother. Mei decides to talk to a counselor. She shares her struggle with what she considers her duty. She believes she failed her mother and tells the counselor she always planned to care for her mother, not only out of duty, but also because she truly wanted to. The counselor helps Mei accept both the fact that it’s not possible to do everything and her grief over her mother’s condition. Mei works to develop self-compassion for herself and reconcile herself with the fact that life may not go according to plan. Mei’s visits to her mother improve as her mother adjusts to the nursing home. Eventually she no longer tells Mei she is a bad daughter. This, along with therapy, helps reduce Mei’s feelings of guilt. Her guilt doesn’t completely go away, but she is able to accept and cope with it.
- Overcoming long-standing guilt: Charles, 23, meets with a counselor in an attempt to deal with feelings of guilt from an incident that took place in his teenage years. He and a group of his friends had repeatedly harassed two homeless men they often saw at a park in their neighborhood: jeering at them, throwing their belongings into garbage cans, and tossing garbage at them. Charles' feelings of guilt have worsened since he could not find the two men upon returning to his hometown after college, though he had planned to apologize to them and make amends. After a conversation with his counselor, Charles decides to spend some time each week volunteering at a shelter or soup kitchen. When he does so, although he still feels guilt over the way he behaved in the past, his guilt is somewhat assuaged by the knowledge that he is helping others.
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