Guilt plays an important role in shaping our morals because it helps us to learn from our mistakes and change future behaviours. However, guilt is also incredibly powerful and, if left unmanaged, can become debilitating; hindering a person’s self-esteem and personal development, and causing pain and sadness.
Nearly all of us have struggled with guilt at some point – and for anyone with empathy and a conscience, guilt is an inevitable part of life. So it’s what we do with it and how we manage it that counts.
With the right tools, it’s possible for guilt to become something that doesn’t leave us stuck in the past – but instead, encourages us to become better versions of ourselves.
Here, we’ll take a closer look at the purpose of guilt. We’ll also explore ways that we can move through it, learn from it, and ultimately, forgive ourselves.
What is guilt?
Guilt is a complex and difficult self-conscious emotion that can leave us feeling sad, disappointed, and regretful about something we’ve done wrong – or something we feel we’ve done wrong.
There are also many different types of guilt but three common ones are reactive guilt, anticipatory guilt, and existential guilt.
Reactive guilt stems from a feeling that we’ve done something that goes against our own internal morals and beliefs. For example, hitting someone else’s car when parking and not leaving a note, or gossiping about someone at work.
Anticipatory guilt stems from an action that a person knows might cause hurt or upset but is considering anyway. Examples of this type of guilt could include thoughts about cheating on your partner or about not attending a friend’s birthday when you promised you would.
Existential guilt is much broader and more complex, and results from feelings of injustice or of life not being fair. A person might feel guilty about their impact on the world (such as their carbon footprint) or about the fact that they’re in a more privileged position than someone else. ‘Survivor’s guilt – which is where a person believes that they’ve done something wrong by surviving a life-threatening situation (such as an accident, cancer, or combat) when others didn’t – falls into this category.
Guilt can be mild and fleeting or it can be deeper and last days, weeks, months, or even years. It involves negative self-reflection and may manifest as a nagging voice in your head, an anxious feeling in the pit of your stomach, and/or a desire to make up for your mistakes.
When does guilt become unhealthy?
According to research, a certain amount of guilt is actually good for us because it shows that our moral compass is working well, which makes it easier for us to survive in a world of right and wrong.
Guilt can help us develop empathy, try to make amends when we see that someone is suffering, and avoid making the same mistakes in future – all of which can strengthen our connections with the people around us.
But, there are times when guilt can also be unhelpful and unhealthy. This tends to happen when reactive or anticipatory guilt goes on for too long or isn’t proportional to the action that led to it, leading to distress and difficulty functioning. It also applies to existential guilt, such as survivor’s guilt, where the person isn’t guilty of anything at all but feels they have a part to play in an injustice.
People who are experiencing extreme guilt will often feel as though they don’t deserve to be happy and might experience signs such as worry, anxiety, trouble sleeping, muscle tension, and preoccupation with past mistakes.
In some cases, extreme guilt can also lead to depression and self-harm. If this sounds familiar, then it’s important to make an appointment with your GP who can explain what help might be available to you.
While guilt can be agonising to deal with, the good news is that it is possible to work through it, let go, and find happiness again.
9 steps to help you let go of guilt and forgive yourself
1. Acknowledge and accept your guilt for what it is
The first step in overcoming feelings of guilt is to accept and acknowledge, not only the guilt itself, but any emotions that come with it, such as sadness, anger, or remorse. As with any difficult emotion, suppressing guilt can prolong it or increase the chances of it resurfacing later.
You might find that writing down what you’re feeling gives you greater clarity and understanding about it, and provides an outlet. For example, “I feel guilty for not being there for a friend who was going through a difficult time. This also makes me feel sad and worried that I might have damaged our friendship.”
If you struggle to recognise what you’re feeling, then mindfulness can also be a helpful tool. It’s intended to bring your mind back to the present so you can be more aware of your thoughts and feelings.
Once, you can acknowledge and name your emotions, you can start to take steps to work through them and improve your situation.
2. Get to the root of your guilt
Naturally, when you acknowledge your guilt, you might feel compelled to enter into a cycle of rumination about the past that’s followed by shame, judgement, and regret – but resist doing this if you can.
Instead, try to be curious about your guilt and explore where it’s coming from. Does it stem from a mistake that you’ve made? Or does it stem from other people’s impressions and expectations of you (you can read more about guilt-tripping on Healthline here)? Or perhaps your guilt comes from a situation that makes you sad, angry, or frustrated but that isn’t directly caused by you and that you can’t change?
Understanding where your guilt comes from can help you decide whether your guilt is healthy (and can be used as a catalyst for change) or unhealthy (doesn’t serve any real purpose and is just making you miserable).
3. Work out what purpose the guilt is serving
If you realise you’ve made a mistake, then it’s normal to feel some guilt – and owning up to your mistakes and making amends for them can go a long way in helping you heal.
However, as we’ve already mentioned, not all guilt is healthy. Sometimes, guilt goes on for much longer than it should; eating away at us. And other times, we might feel guilty when we haven’t actually done anything wrong. Unhealthy guilt is unhelpful guilt because it doesn’t serve a purpose other than to make you miserable.
So, ask yourself, “Is my guilt fuelling a desire to be a better person, or is it just a form of self-loathing and punishment that’s affecting my quality of life?” If it’s the latter, then ultimately, your guilt is serving no helpful purpose for anyone – so try to use this sentiment to let it go and focus your energy on something more constructive.
4. Make amends
Sometimes, making amends – even years after an event has happened – can be one of the best ways to close the door on your guilt and leave the past behind.
If the reason that you feel guilty is that you hurt someone, then consider what you could do to make it up to them. This could mean saying sorry or it might also involve an action, like replacing something that you broke or taking your friend out for dinner after missing their birthday.
Sometimes, attempts to make amends don’t go to plan, but it might still help the person you hurt to see that you’re trying. And knowing you made an effort to fix things can give you some peace of mind too, regardless of the outcome.
Sometimes the need to unburden ourselves from guilt can cause us to offload onto others in an unhelpful way (which can perpetuate the cycle of guilt).
For example, if you’ve had an affair and your partner has forgiven you, but you can’t stop feeling guilty – then, it’s usually not helpful (or fair) to keep apologising to your partner or repeatedly bringing it up, as this can open up old wounds.
It’s best to balance the need to relieve your guilt with the needs of the person you’re trying to make it up to – which often means knowing when to stop and leave the past behind.
5. Learn from the past
If your guilt is directly related to one of your actions, then try to take some comfort in the fact that absolutely everyone makes mistakes – and the fact that you feel guilty means that you care about the consequences of your actions and want to be a better person. In this case, guilt can be a powerful motivator for change.
It can also help to remember that there’s nothing that we can do to change what’s already happened. So, going over and over past events in your mind and thinking about what you should and shouldn’t have done is only going to make you feel worse. Instead, try to focus on the present and consider what steps you can take to avoid making the same mistakes again.
While accepting and letting go of the past can be tricky, it can also be liberating, offer you some relief, and show you a way forward.
6. Put things into perspective
Negative situations – especially those that arise from our own actions – can often seem much worse than they actually are. And even if the mistake you made is quite serious, you won’t be the first person to have made that mistake, nor will you be the last.
If your guilt is weighing heavy on your shoulders and you’re struggling to get out of a rut, then it can help to reframe it.
Consider what you might think of a friend or family member who’s feeling guilty about the same thing – what would you think of them? If you wouldn’t think twice about what they’d done and would encourage them to let it go, then consider why the same mistake is taking centre stage in your own life.
7. Focus your energy on something positive
No matter what you feel guilty about, focusing your energy on something positive – especially helping others – can be an effective way to work through your guilt.
Guilt involves negative self-reflection, which can chip away at our self-esteem if we let it. But helping others is effective for building (or rebuilding) a more positive self-image.
To get started, why not take a look at our article; 18 meaningful ways to help others and give back to your community? There are also plenty of ideas – from working with animals to helping the homeless – in the volunteering section of our website.
8. Remember all the good things you do
Guilt can be an all-consuming emotion that can make it difficult to see the positives that you bring to the table. But, try to reflect on all the good things you’ve done and continue to do.
One mistake (or even several mistakes) doesn’t define you or your future, nor does it erase all of your accomplishments and achievements thus far.
If you’re finding it difficult to be kind to yourself at the moment, then you might find it helpful to read our article, 16 ways to improve your confidence and self-esteem, which includes everything from practising self-love to trusting your instincts and keeping a gratitude journal.
9. Learn to forgive yourself
Forgiving others is often much easier than forgiving ourselves. A common theory for this is that we tend to have higher moral standards for ourselves than we have for others. But however difficult it may feel, forgiving ourselves is something that we can learn to do with practise.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean shrugging off your mistake and pretending it didn’t happen.
According to Verywellmind, forgiveness is about: accepting responsibility for your actions, expressing remorse, repairing the damage and restoring trust, and focusing on renewal. You can read more about these steps in their article here.
Forgiveness also involves being compassionate towards yourself and accepting that while you might have flaws, you’re always working on bettering yourself – and your conscience can be your guide.6
Guilt is a moral emotion that can help us correct our mistakes and prevent future wrongdoing. But, misplaced or excessive guilt can lead us down an unproductive path that’s about punishment and pain, rather than learning and growing – and learning and growing is what life’s all about.
If you’re struggling with guilt then we hope that the steps above will help. You might also find it useful to speak to a trusted friend, family member, or counsellor about how you’re feeling, rather than keeping it bottled up.
Alternatively, you can get in touch with Samaritans by calling 116 124, or with Silver Line by calling 0800 470 8090. Here, someone will be able to offer you a listening ear and some friendly words of advice 24 hours a day, seven days a week.