Guilt is often seen in a bad light. We avoid feeling guilty and some will even say you shouldn’t feel guilty at all. So, what’s the deal?
Guilt can be useful. In a proper balance, it can alert you to make a change in your life.
You might feel guilty about doing something you know is wrong or not doing your best. In the right balance, guilt can help protect our relationships.
But, guilt can also be harmful. A lot of people carry excessive guilt that drags them down and makes them question their worth. They let themselves feel guilty over minor issues or non-issues. The guilt can compile and become a burden.
Is guilt dragging you down?
What is Guilt?
Guilt is those negative feelings of emotional distress that signal something is wrong.
Those who don’t feel any guilt or remorse are considered psychopaths, which is a very serious mental illness. Because a psychopath doesn’t have a conscience, they are often extremely manipulative and struggle to follow socially acceptable norms. They tend to break rules and laws that don’t benefit them personally. They are often compulsive liars, are cold towards others and take unnecessary risks—especially regarding the safety of others.
Do you see the problem when healthy guilt isn’t in place?
Here are some examples of when you might feel guilty:
Causing Harm: The feelings of guilt occur most frequently when we do something we know is wrong—like physically or emotionally harming someone else. When we realize our wrongful actions are causing harm, we feel bad about causing those consequences.
Moral Compromise: Guilt might also occur when our moral standards are compromised, like in cases of lying, cheating or thinking bad thoughts about someone else. You might feel guilty if you think about hurting someone else because you are angry, or wish they would fail because you feel jealous. While someone may not actually be hurt in the process, we feel guilty that we are not acting in ways that are up to our understanding of moral standards.
Failing Standards: If we aren’t taking care of something or doing our best, we may feel guilty. A parent might feel guilty if they spend too much of their day on the phone or give their child easy food rather than fighting the battle of the vegetables. You might feel guilty if you are being paid to do a job and know you aren’t fulfilling the expectations or meeting high enough standards.
Failing Others: Sometimes we may feel guilty for letting others down. Guilt trips often revolve around our desire to please others. Some failures can hurt others, like failing to show up for someone’s special event. But, other failures are merely perceived—like not joining the PTA or bending over backward for a demanding person in your life.
Breaking Promises: If you make a commitment to yourself or someone else, you may feel guilty if you violate it. Some promises, like a wedding vow, will directly impact another person if you break them as a cheater. But, guilt could also come from breaking a promise to yourself to stop a habit or a promise to a dying parent that you will keep a family business running.
Guilt should make you feel responsible and regret offenses towards others. But, guilt can be felt for a perceived, imaginary offense or even a part of the grief reaction.
When guilty feelings start to take over life and become all-consuming, it can point to an underlying disease, like clinical depression or PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Unfounded guilt might also pressure you into doing certain things that you wouldn’t normally do—like giving someone money you can’t spare or showing up to social events you don’t have time for.
Guilt isn’t like feeling sad or upset—it is more of a combination of anxiety, shame, frustration and humiliation. A prolonged guilty conscience can cause all kinds of mental and physical symptoms, including:
- Restlessness and sleeplessness
- Stomach pains and indigestion
- Cold sweats or clammy hands
- Emotional swings and irritability
- Feeling overwhelmed or sensitive
- Low self-esteem or self-worth
- A crushing sense of doom or failure
- Loss of appetite or comfort snacking
- Sudden change in weight or activities
Guilt can be valuable and it can be harmful. It can sometimes be hard to know the difference until it is damaging our mental health or hurting the people we love.
What Causes Excessive Guilt Feelings?
I used to feel excessive guilt just for existing. From a young age, I was treated as if my opinion didn’t matter—especially to the men in my life. If I had thoughts that went against the grain or conflicted with their thoughts, then I would feel guilty.
It became such a point of tension in my life that it caused deep dark areas of self-doubt. I felt worthless and unlovable because I didn’t believe that my perspective held any value.
This is just one story of excessive guilt. There are so many out there. And, while it can be healed, it helps to know where it stems from.
Guilt is typically something we learn as children. We learn what is “good” and “bad.” Sometimes, those guilt trippers are misapplied—like when we teach children that sugar is “bad” and vegetables are “good.” And, when our understanding of guilt is misapplied, we feel bad and get down on ourselves for things that aren’t truly harmful ethical issues.
If a child grows up feeling a lot of guilt, some experts believe that it can become one of their strongest emotions. While it’s rooted in subconscious thought, guilt directly impacts cognitive activities. If you feel guilty about something, then you are likely to avoid it—even if you aren’t doing anything wrong.
When I felt guilty about expressing myself, the feelings caused me to shell up and wall people off as a defense mechanism. While I didn’t fully understand the root cause for a long time, I did experience the effects of it on my daily life.
When you experience misplaced or “false” guilt, it hurts you and those around you. Excessive guilt will even pull you down and can cause a lot of serious issues in your life. I want to help you break free of that!
4 Warning Signs Guilt is Dragging You Down
Here are four common signs that you feel too much guilt for things that aren’t your fault.
1. You apologize for everything.
Do people ever tell you that you apologize too much? And, do you ever catch yourself apologizing for things that you don’t need to? That’s a big, red flag that you have too much guilt.
Sometimes, we apologize without even thinking. When someone tries to skirt a procedure at work, for example, you might naturally start your sentence with “Oh, sorry, you can’t do that!” Or, if someone bumps into you by mistake, do you apologize to them? In both of these hypothetical cases, you were not at fault.
Women are prone to apologize more than men, partially because our threshold for offensive behavior tends to be lower. But, it is also one of the emotional signs of deeper self-worth issues.
Software developer Tami Reiss told NPR the word “sorry” is one of many qualifiers used regularly by women at a higher rate than men that impacts professional relationships. “We edit ourselves out and we minimize ourselves,” she said. “And these qualifiers we do because we’re afraid of coming off as too strong when in reality, by adding them in, we’re making ourselves come off as weak.”
What to do about it:
The next time you start to say, “I’m sorry,” stop and identify your actual feelings. Do you honestly feel sorry and should you feel sorry about it?
If not, you might express something like…
- I feel really stupid about this.
- This is embarrassing to me.
- I feel like I have to explain myself.
- I feel put on the spot.
By naming how you actually feel, you will get to the root of the issue—rather than ignore it.
Remember: if you don’t have a true reason to be sorry, saying “I’m sorry” out of guilt or habit doesn’t solve anything.
2. You have a hard time forgiving yourself for the past.
Do you ever repeat things in your mind you’ve done wrong? Do you think often about what you could or should have done differently in the past?
It is very common for us to feel trapped by regrets of the past, but guilt won’t fix those issues. Instead, the guilt we feel just impedes the present.
It’s important to remember that forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting. You can forgive an attacker and not ever put yourself in the same room with them and fully expect they are punished by the law. You can forgive yourself for doing something hurtful to someone else, but not minimize the hurt you caused.
Not being able to move past what happened in the past is an example of feeling unhealthy guilt.
This is especially true if you didn’t cause serious harm or you took blame for something that wasn’t fully your fault.
In some cases, you might believe put-downs that aren’t even true if you don’t hold a sense of self-value. You might struggle with small talk because you feel sure no one will value your perspective or want to form a real relationship with you.
What to do about it:
Consciously practice self-forgiveness. Put your hand on your heart and say this in your mind or out loud:
“Even though I have blamed myself for _______, I forgive and accept myself. I am doing the best I know how.”
3. You worry about being a disappointment to others.
Do you ever worry that you’ll let people down? Do you get frustrated that you can never do enough?
Feeling like you always disappoint people is one of the telltale signs you’re carrying too much guilt from the past.
We tend to overtax ourselves if we feel this form of guilt. You may try to be all things to all people and you don’t want to say no unless you have a really good reason.
A big trigger may be social media. This is one place that most of our friends can put forward only their very best (curated) image. You may feel less worthy because you don’t see the struggles and failures of those around you.
What to do about it:
Guilt and people-pleasing patterns are connected. When you begin to practice self-forgiveness from the previous step, you will notice a shift in your energy. Next, get off social media and work to make connections in real life (even brief interactions with strangers).
- You will no longer need to “make up for” your past.
- You can learn to say “no” without needing to explain yourself.
- You will be able to bring joy just through your natural energy.
4. You always take the blame if something goes wrong.
Do you assume that any problem is all your fault? Do you ever resent others because they seem to get out of situations without any blame?
Carrying this weight is a sign that you’re taking on too much guilt.
You should not feel guilty unless you are the direct cause of harm.
In a toxic relationship, one partner is often made to carry all of the guilt for any problems or failings. If the relationship starts to fall apart, that person feels it is their job to fix it because the toxic person is gaslighting them.
In a codependent relationship, the dependent person is often guilt-tripping the other person if they aren’t there to offer unreasonable forms of support.
These relationships might be ones we have with our significant others, siblings, parents, a distant family member, boss, coworkers or even our friends. Most often, we experience too much guilt with our closest relationships that matter the most to us—namely, our parents and our partners.
What to do about it:
Take 3 deep breaths as you try this visualization:
Imagine yourself being washed in cascading, white light, washing the guilt from your entire being. Physically wipe the guilt off your body and free yourself once and for all.
Psychological and Physical Effects of Guilt
There are very real symptoms experienced with guilt. You may find guilt turns into debilitating anxiety that makes it impossible to form healthy relationships or enjoy social settings. You might find that you are slipping into serious depression or insomnia.
Do not keep battling guilt by yourself. It is important to get a strong support system in place and start working through these issues.
In my Healing Center, we work through these subconscious causes of excessive guilt. My Clearing Session for Guilt will help you heal any issues that are blocking you from a life of affluence and joy. I hope you will start your free trial healing session today.