The Truth About Guilt and How to Let it Go

Let’s talk about guilt. It’s not a great feeling, is it? By definition, guilt is a feeling of deserved blame for something. It is an emotion we associate with being sad. When we use guilt the right way, it keeps our values and actions in check because it is something we want to avoid. It moves us to act and do “the right thing.”

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I remember being in elementary school and lying about not doing my homework. Maybe I’m ultra sensitive, but I hated how I felt, and so I didn’t do it again. When we use guilt to keep us from doing something wrong, it isn’t such a terrible emotion.

But sometimes guilt becomes a trap holding us back from finding happiness. We feel guilty about leaving our kids for a weekend with our husband or spending precious time away from home helping a friend. Maybe we don’t get to tuck the kids in at night because we’re going back to school. It’s easy to fall into the guilt trap even when we know what we’re doing is important and worthwhile.

While guilt can be a positive thing, motivating us to work towards our goals, it can also be the thing holding us back.

It’s important to pay attention to your feelings of guilt and ask yourself if it’s productive or if it’s destructive.

The Good the Bad and the Guilty

If you feel bad about missing dinner with the family, you’re not going to be fully present and committed in the evening class you’re taking. The guilt you’re feeling is keeping you from committing fully and giving it your all.

It’s also stealing your joy. It may not seem like a big deal, but guilt eats up your positive energy and drive. We need that energy to push a little harder, try a little longer, and do all the little, seemingly insignificant things that make all the difference in the end.

Guilt also gives you an easy excuse to give up. Life isn’t easy, and anything of real value takes work and effort. Sometimes it’s easier to give up rather than pushing hard, solving problems, or resolving conflicts we’d rather avoid. Our guilty feelings may be just the excuse we need to justify giving up.

By understanding our feelings of guilt and working through them, we can improve our mental capacity and emotional wellbeing. And that my friend is a benefit to everyone!

Deep Dig into 4 Causes of Guilt

1 | Something You Did

We are supposed to feel guilt when we do something wrong like my experience from not turning in my homework. It can be a moral compass to keep us honest and on track. The problems start when we ruminate over this kind of emotion. We are all human, we make mistakes and what we might have done can’t be changed.

Best way to work through this cause of guilt is to accept what happened. Apologize and do what you can to amend your wrong, then figure out how to make sure it doesn’t happen again. My flaw is to dwell on a “foot in mouth” moment and worry about how it might have offended someone. I’ve learned to be a little more contemplative about what I say and am quick to apologize when I realize what I’ve done.

2 | Something You Think You Did

When we are unhappy, our thoughts often become irrational. The way we remember situations, our auto playback, may not be entirely accurate. On some level, we understand we are unreasonable, but it’s hard to kick this thought process.

Before accusing yourself of doing something wrong, make sure you’ve got the facts. If what you’re remembering is distorted you might feel more responsible than you are. Do a reality check and separate the facts from feelings.

3 | Didn’t Do Enough

My best friend died of cancer years ago. I spent hours at her bedside, watching her kids, helping her finish scrapbook pages, and worrying I wasn’t doing enough. When she finally passed it was while my husband and I were in a movie. I took the phone call just outside the theater, and then I went back in and watched the rest of the film in numbed silence. For the longest time, I thought, “What were you thinking?” Why did I stay rather than immediately leave and go to offer support to her family?

It is a bitter accusation to make. I’ve since learned to say I did enough. There is no way we can do it ALL! It just isn’t possible. There will always be more, and that is okay. Learning to accept our efforts as the best we could do is hard, but so essential. Don’t beat yourself up thinking you didn’t do enough. Be grateful you could do what you did.

4 | Doing Better than Someone Else

Sometimes our success can make us feel guilty. Have you fallen for this one? Our world is one of comparison, and it is proving to be so destructive. Stop comparing! When we excel, we shouldn’t feel bad about it. Our real friends will celebrate with us, and cheer us on. We need each other in this life and feeling guilty about making someone feel bad because we are doing well is wrong.

There is a fine line, however, between success and pride. Beware to not boast or brag about your accomplishments, but be sure not to let them make you feel guilty either. Remember your success is worth celebrating and your failure will not make someone feel better about what they have accomplished.

Forgive and Love the Real You

Once you understand where your guilt is coming from, the next step is to work towards forgiveness and self-acceptance. Here’s the thing most people don’t realize. You have to love the real you before you can start to make the small changes that lead to happiness.

We are all human beings. We make mistakes, we mess up, and we don’t always do what we intend to do. When we learn to forgive ourselves and love enough to try again, we learn and get better. That’s why this step of forgiveness and love is so important.

It helps to start small. Find something small that might be causing you a bit of guilt. Forgive yourself and see what you can learn from the experience. Then build on that one positive and forgiving act and use the energy to do it again, and again, and again. When you actively work on loving and forgiving yourself, amazing things start to happen. Most importantly, you begin to build a positive habit that will help propel you forward.

I know it’s always easier said than done, but if you can come from a place of love and forgiveness, seeing things in a positive light becomes second nature. Get in the habit of looking for the best and most positive perspective in each situation. Be kind to yourself and don’t condemn what you did or didn’t do. Forgive and keep working towards a positive, and possibly life-changing mindset.

How do you process your guilt emotions?

Resources: The Definitive Guide to Guilt, Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D.

Originally published at

Author of Creating Positive Habits and Practicing Progress, Lori writes about choices inspiring greater joy and happiness.

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