How to overcome feelings of guilt

  • Sangeetha spanks her 2 year old daughter and feels terribly guilty after that.
  • Rohan knows he’s been working late hours lately and feels guilty about not being able to spend enough time with his family.
  • 70 year old Prasad looks back at his life and feels a sense of guilt for not being able to live the life he imagined he would.
  • 40 year old Suma goes through extreme pangs of guilt after her 16 year old son died in an accident.

Does this sound familiar to you?  You’re probably reflecting about certain things that make you feel guilty in your own life, and perhaps you struggle to talk about this due to the fear of being judged.

It is important to know that all of us feel guilty at some point in our lives and it is a natural experience for most human beings. Guilt is generally defined as an emotion that we experience when we act against our own values or convictions. If not emotionally, we may experience guilt cognitively.

Many people have strong opinions about guilt, depending upon their religious background, family background and their own values and beliefs about life. Some are of the opinion that guilt is an unnecessary emotion and that we are better off if we learn not to feel guilty about anything. On the other end of the spectrum is a belief that only guilt can make us good human beings. We may all be at different ends of the spectrum where some of us feel guilty about everything we do while some of us may never feel guilty about anything. Some of us may be in between.

From a psychological point of view, guilt is seen as both a positive and negative emotion. There are basically two types of guilt: guilt as stimulant and guilt as torment. Healthy guilt stimulates us to change and growth while unhealthy guilt torments us and hinders our growth, causing psychological damage for ourselves and others.

If you are feeling guilty about something and not sure if the guilt is healthy or unhealthy, the following explanation of different types of guilt may help you become more discerning and aware.

Guilt as stimulant for change

Healthy guilt tends to be a stimulant for change and growth. Feelings of guilt help us stay within the boundaries of our own values and help us grow when we break those boundaries. Coming to grips with a mistake or failure is a dimension of sanity. The kind of person who murders an innocent child just for pleasure and feels no remorse, claiming not to experience any guilt is seen as a person outside the dimension of sanity. Popular media may call this person a psychopath. Therefore healthy guilt is necessary as it acts as a protector of an individual’s values and society’s health.

Feelings of guilt can help us take action that could bring good to others and ourselves. Because of guilt, we may learn to change our ways, seeking forgiveness from others and from ourselves. For believers in a higher power, guilt could lead to seeking forgiveness from God thereby stimulating change.

Often failures are an occasion for learning, gaining valuable insights to ourselves and for taking more responsibility for our lives. Guilt, when we don’t allow them to overwhelm us, can be a positive emotion for self growth and change.

Guilt as torment

Sometimes we could become disappointed with ourselves when we fail to live up to our own values, to such an extent when guilt refuses to disappear and we end up condemning ourselves. In such instances, guilt works against us – rather than for us. It becomes a torment rather than a stimulant. Unlike the psychopath who is imprisoned by others, we imprison ourselves – behind the bars of our own guilt.

For eg, 70 year old Prasad looks back at his life and feels a sense of guilt for not being able to live the life he imagined he would. If Prasad allows this guilt to overwhelm and control him, it could lead to a deep sense of disappointment in life and self condemnation. Such guilt may torment Prasad to an extent where he may not let go of the past and focus on the present. This type of guilt hinders self growth and may be unnecessary for Prasad’s emotional health.

Unresolved Guilt

When guilt still lingers on, burdening and immobilizing us – even after acting upon the guilt, can be termed as ‘unresolved guilt’. Such guilt that controls us, despite us doing everything we can to repair the damage caused, becomes unhealthy or neurotic. Unresolved guilt can impede our normal functioning. Some psychological theories suggest that holding on to guilt and not forgiving oneself can be a species of self punishment or self imposed martyrdom. It implies a perfectionism that is unrealistic and destructive leading to depression.

Self punishment stemming from unresolved guilt can sometimes be noticed after a divorce, death of a loved one, the loss of a job, a sudden disappointment or when someone deliberately hurts another. The guilty person is these cases tortures self needlessly for failing, and refuses to forgive self.  Sometimes people can consciously or unconsciously do hurtful things to themselves as a way of punishing themselves.

Unreasonable Guilt

At times, we could experience guilt for no apparent reason. We are conscious of no deliberate wrong. A person may say ‘I feel guilty and I can’t say why’.  These feelings may seem illogical and unfounded. Example: A person feeling terribly guilty for missing an appointment even though he is ill and has informed the concerned person.

It is possible that our family background has a role to play in unreasonable guilt. We may uncover in our background an atmosphere and pattern of unhealthy guilt that consciously or unconsciously has been a part of our upbringing. It also happens that someone makes us feel guilty for some act we were not responsible for, this too could be due to our upbringing.

Coping with Guilt

There is no magic solution in overcoming guilt. Every person has their own unique way of coping with guilt. Perhaps it would help to become aware of what is the real cause of the guilt. Do you feel guilty because you’ve gone against your values or is it because of something that has very little to do with your actions? Does the guilt overwhelm you and control you or does it lead you to positive action and change?  Is it a stimulant or a torment? Once you have clarified with yourself, your own beliefs about the issue, you may be in a better position to discern whether your guilt is healthy or unhealthy.

Research has shown that negative messages from unresolved guilt are one of the most powerful forces in undermining one’s self image and self esteem. Guilt when denied could show up in other forms such as anxiety, depression, restlessness or various psychosomatic problems.

If you are someone who is struggling with unresolved guilt or coping with guilt that seems to torment or control you, consider talking it over with a trained counsellor who will journey with you in a safe and confidential space, helping you talk about things you may have considered too shameful or negative to open up. With the help of a warm, trusting and non-judgemental relationship with a counsellor, you may feel more confident in talking about things you may have buried inside of you for a long time.

Talk It Over

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About Monisha Srichand

Monisha Srichand is the Director of TalkItOver Counselling Services. She is also a counselling psychologist, executive coach and leadership development facilitator. She has served in Marketing & HR roles before pursuing the counselling profession. Over the last 6 years, she has trained & coached over 4500 organization leaders in Fortune 500 companies across India on people management, diversity & inclusion, leadership development and emotional intelligence. She was awarded the university medal for outstanding performance in academic excellence in M.Sc Counselling Psychology and outstanding management student at Mount Carmel College, Bangalore. She enjoys travelling, photography, cooking, baking, reading and dancing in her free time.