There are many reasons why you might have feelings of guilt. It could be because of an event, situation, or person.
Some people, for example, have “survivor guilt.” This is when someone who survived an event or situation feels guilty about surviving when others did not.
It’s also common to feel guilty about something you did that you consider to be morally wrong. This type of guilt is usually accompanied by shame. Instead of acknowledging and apologizing for what you did, you may try to conceal it because of shame. Some people would rather live with a constant feeling of guilt than admit their mistakes. This may be because the truth causes shame.
Some people feel guilty about a behavior or habit. Other people feel guilty about their flaws. Others may feel guilty for not doing something when they feel like they should have, for example, not defending a friend when they needed you to.
There are many things that can cause feelings of guilt.
In summary, feeling guilty about something often involves:
- Focusing on past actions or deeds
- Recognizing that the effects of the past actions are not changeable
- Putting distance between yourself and people you have hurt
- Expecting punishment
Studies show that negative emotions and thoughts can elevate the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones help trigger your body to respond when you encounter a threat or stressful event. The problem is when high levels of these hormones last too long, you start to become restless and irritable. You may also start to experience high blood pressure, rapid heart rate, a stress ulcer in your stomach, and inflammation.
Research that studies how guilt affects your mind shows that feeling guilty can affect your mental health and well-being. Feeling guilty increases negative thinking. This can have a bigger impact if you’re already experiencing depression. When you’re in a depressive state and also have feelings of guilt, this can lead to negative cognition. Negative cognition is when you think about and talk to yourself in a negative way.
Generally, you may start to have a negative opinion about yourself, leading to low self-esteem issues. As a result, feeling guilty can make you even more depressed.
When you start having feelings of guilt, you may not even know why you’re feeling guilty. In other cases, you may know why you’re feeling guilty but don’t know how to manage those feelings.
Here are a few tips to help you stop feeling guilty.
- Accept what has happened.
Nobody can turn back time. If you’re feeling guilty because of a past mistake or event — for instance, if you’re experiencing survivor guilt — you can start accepting what happened and know that nothing you can do can change the past.
- Apologize if necessary.
When you hurt someone, it can sometimes be hard to apologize. This might be because you’re feeling shame, and this is natural and very common.
But there is no need to wallow in guilt. If you think that you can fix the problem by apologizing, then it might be a good solution. You may not get the results that you want, but the person you hurt will see that you’re trying to fix your mistake. That can go a long way.
- Understand where you are now and what has changed.
If you’re feeling guilty about something and know what’s making you feel guilty, first recognize that you can’t do anything to change what has happened.
Secondly, understand where you are now and what has changed. For example, maybe you hurt a friend who doesn’t accept your apology and decides to end your friendship. You’ve done everything that you can, but now the friendship is over. Once you acknowledge the truth about the present situation, you can begin to forgive yourself and give yourself another chance.
- Think about what you would do differently now.
What were you doing before that made you feel guilty, and what can you do differently to make you feel less guilty?
The hardest part might be identifying the behavior that’s making you feel guilty. Once you’ve found the source of your guilty feelings, you can start making changes and stop feeling guilty. For example, maybe you feel guilty for not helping out with housework. Start small and make it a priority to help out more. If you have a habit of buying expensive lattes and this makes you feel guilty, then start by buying them less often or changing your coffee order. Maybe instead of an everyday habit, it becomes an end-of-the-week special treat. Or instead of a super-sized special order with all the toppings, you switch it to a less-expensive simpler drink. Give this method a try. Once you pinpoint the behavior that’s making you feel guilty, you can start making changes and see if it makes a difference.
- Reflect on the lessons you’ve learned.
If you’ve hurt someone with your actions, think about the lessons that the consequences can teach you. Let’s say you stole something from a friend. Even if you return whatever you stole and apologize, your friend might still decide that they no longer want you in their life. The lesson here might be that just because you have an impulse to take something that doesn’t belong to you, you don’t have to act on that impulse. It might cost you a good friendship.
The next time you feel an impulse to do something that feels wrong, remember the consequences of your past behavior. Reflecting on the lessons you’ve learned can help you do things differently.
- Get help if you can’t cope on your own.
Overcoming negative thoughts and emotions takes a lot of willpower and support. Without the support of people you trust, it can be hard to cope with feelings of guilt, shame, anxiety, and other negative emotions. So if you find that you are struggling to cope with feelings of guilt, talk to someone. It can be a close friend, relative, or a professional.
- Do something good.
Doing something good can help you stop feeling guilty. This can be something like helping out in the community or volunteering.
- Do something for yourself.
Doing something that makes you feel good inside will replace those guilty feelings with good and positive feelings.
- Learn something new.
Do something new or try something you have never tried before. Focusing your mind on a new skill can help you think about something other than your feelings of guilt. Create goals and work toward achieving them. Refocus your thoughts on something positive. Instead of dwelling on what is making you feel guilty, focus on achieving your goals.
- Celebrate your small victories.
Be proud of every small achievement you make. Even apologizing for something you’ve done wrong is an achievement in itself. Commend yourself for being brave enough to apologize despite the shame.
- Turn guilt into gratitude.
You may see guilt as a negative emotion, which leads to other negative emotions. But you can also try turning guilt into gratitude. Studies show that guilt can help you do things that are morally right. Guilt can make you honest. So whenever you are feeling guilty, try to look at it in a positive way. Learn to appreciate that guilt because it will help you grow as a person.
- Don’t be too hard on yourself.
Don’t sabotage yourself by obsessing over a mistake. No one is perfect. Understand that you are human, and we all make mistakes. Once you’ve apologized and fixed your mistake when and where you can, don’t burden yourself with feelings of guilt over something you can’t change or undo. This can only affect your physical and mental health. Instead, be good to yourself. Practice self-compassion, and tell yourself that you are good enough.
- Grow your self-esteem.
Guilt is associated with shame, and shame leads to low self-esteem. By learning to forgive yourself, you can overcome the guilt and shame. It’s easy to look down on yourself, and these negative thoughts are often driven by feelings of guilt.
Once you stop feeling guilty, you can grow your self-esteem. Self-esteem and self-compassion go hand in hand. If you want to start feeling good about yourself, show yourself compassion. This will increase your self-worth and self-esteem.
- Seek professional help.
If you’ve tried everything you can to stop feeling guilty with no success, remember you can always ask for help. If the guilt is affecting your everyday life and making you feel depressed, talk to a professional. Don’t let guilt take over your life. Asking for help is a great way to show yourself some love.