Discover what to do when you’re feeling guilty so you can let go and move on.
Felt guilty recently? Most of us have. Guilt is an emotion that makes us think more about ourselves by having us reflect on how we have acted in the past. Psychologists call this a self-conscious emotion due to the focus on ourselves. We feel guilt “in response to a broad range of feelings, transgressions, and social blunders” (Kazdin, 2000, pg. 40). In other words, guilt is not limited to one certain action or event. What makes one person feel guilty might not make another person feel bad at all. However, when we do feel guilty, we are driven to act. Guilt is characterised by a willingness or readiness to try again to fix the wrong that has been done.
Guilt Versus Shame
Now that we know what guilt is, it is important to understand what it is not. Guilt is often confused with the related emotion of shame, but the two are very different emotions. Both emotions are self-focused, meaning that they make us think more and more about ourselves. However, guilt is focused on the action while shame is all about our identity. When we feel ashamed, we feel that our failures make us bad people. When we feel guilty, we feel that what we did was wrong. In other words, “guilt doesn’t threaten [our] core identity”, but shame does (Kazdin, 2000, p. 40).
These two feelings also typically lead to very different behaviours. Because it is just about our behaviour, guilt can lead us to others as we seek to apologise or repair the wrong. In this way, guilt can lead us out of ourselves. Shame, on the other hand, tends to turn us inwards and draw us away from others. Since shame makes us feel insecure about who we are at the core, we become insecure in our relationships. June Tangey, a researcher who studies these emotions, says that shame is also tied to anger while guilt is tied to empathy (Tangney & Dearing, 2002).
Can Guilt Ever Be Good?
Because it is such an unpleasant feeling, guilt often has a bad reputation. But studies in psychology show that the feeling of guilt may drive us to engage in positive behaviours. Guilt has been connected to helping behaviour. That means that when we feel guilty we are more likely to help someone else (Miller, 2010). Guilt might also make us more honest. In one study Ma et al. (2022) found that preschool children were more likely to be honest about cheating when they felt guilty than when they felt sad.
Additionally, guilt may make us more prone to empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand someone else’s feelings and point of view. When we are feeling empathetic, we are more likely to help someone and be less angry at them. Research has shown that when feeling guilty (instead of ashamed) we feel more empathy for the person that we have wronged (Kazdin, 2000).
How To Deal With Guilt
When it comes down to it, guilt is an uncomfortable emotion, and feeling too much of it could lead to mental health issues. But we all know that we mess up and will probably feel guilty again. So how do we deal with that heavy feeling?
- Tell the truth
As awkward as it may be, telling the truth is one way to ease feelings of guilt. In a study done by Peer et al. (2014), people who confessed fully to unethical behaviour (in this case, cheating on an exam) felt better than people who did not confess or only confessed partially. This tells us that coming clean may ease that burden of guilt we feel in our chest.
- Do the thing that needs to be done – seek repair and avoid rumination
Guilt is our body’s way of letting us know that something more needs to be done. This may be seeking repair in relationships and so doing your best to fix the wrongs that have been done. Allowing guilt to drive us to these actions and then letting go from feeling guilty is one way that we can feel guilt and then move on. A tangible benefit of this is that once we’ve taken action to fix a situation we no longer overthink or ruminate on what we should do. Once we’ve sought repair, forgiven ourselves and the other for whatever arose, nothing else can be done. Forgiving yourself and moving on is key to letting go of guilt.
I’ve helped many clients who’ve struggled to let go of guilt and have needed some help to do so. Forgiving themselves, and often the other, is a key part of this. Forgiving allows you to free yourself up from bitterness, anger and other limiting emotions. It doesn’t heal your whole relationship with that person, but it means you’ve accepted the event happened and you will no longer be held small and negative because of it. In RTT (Rapid Transformational Therapy) we have tools for allowing you to converse with others who you need to forgive, dead or alive, that can really shift your relationship with that person, and with yourself. Recently I’ve helped people forgive and move on from negativity towards:
– past life choices,
– past partners,
– people who’ve abused their children, and
– themselves, over not believing they can ever do things right.
- Be careful not to fuse guilt with shame
Guilt and shame are not the same emotion, but they often go hand in hand. Separating out shame and guilt can be helpful for self-awareness. Making sure that when we’ve made a mistake that we regret, we understand that everyone makes mistakes and it doesn’t make us a bad or an unworthy person. It’s important not to generalise a mistake we’ve made to our core personhood, i.e. because I did this I’m a bad person. This is key to letting guilt just be guilt and not succumbing to shame.
None of us enjoy feeling guilt, although we all do from time to time. It makes us doubt our actions and focus on the past. But guilt has both positive and negative consequences. Often guilt can lead us to strive to do better in the future and fix our relationships in the present. However, an excess of guilt can lead us to ruminate on the past and even harm our mental health. Now you understand guilt better, you can feel it and use it to repair your relationships and enhance your empathy for others.
If you’re feeling a lot of guilt and are overthinking about it, please reach out and book a 20 minute free consultation with me to see how I can help you let the guilt go, and you move on.
- Kazdin, A. E. (2000). Encyclopedia of psychology. Washington, D.C: American Psychological Association.
- Ma, F., An, R., Wu, D., Luo, X., Xu, F., & Lagattuta, K. H. (2022). Guilt promotes honesty in preschoolers. Developmental psychology, 58(4), 693–699.
- Miller, C. (2010). Guilt and Helping. Advances in Psychology Research. Alexandra Columbis (ed.). Volume 68. New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2010, 117-138.
- Tangney, J. P., & Dearing, R. L. (2002). Shame and guilt. Guilford Press.