Dealing with Guilt

Jennifer Sneeden
3 min readDec 18, 2023

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Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

As a therapist, guilt is something I hear A LOT about from my clients. It’s also one of the most disempowering emotions, and creates tremendous anxiety. For some people, guilt becomes almost a way of life, and not a pleasant one. You’re not meant to live your life feeling guilty, and releasing that burden frees you to live a happier life.

The first step to dealing with guilt is to honestly ask yourself this question: “Did I do anything wrong?” Your answer is going to determine how to deal with your guilt. If you answer, “Yes”, you did something wrong, then it’s fairly easy to apologize for your actions, correct the mistake, and move on with your life. However, if your answer is “No”, you didn’t do anything wrong, you might feel guilty anyway, and this type of guilt is a little more tangled up than the first one.

How to Deal with Guilt When You Did Something Wrong

You’re human, which means you’re going to screw up, probably at least once a day. That’s just part of the deal. However, these screw-ups are actually wonderful growth opportunities. When you do something that you don’t feel good about, you’ll experience guilt. Cut someone off in traffic? Snap at your partner? Eat the entire half-gallon of ice cream?

You screwed up, and your guilt is letting you know about it. But you’re not meant to live your life feeling guilty. The guilt is supposed to be feedback so that you can course correct and move on with your life. You need to have a way to listen to the guilt, acknowledge your mistake, and learn from the experience.

For instance, you cut someone off in traffic and you feel guilty about it later. Acknowledge that you did something you’re not proud of. You didn’t bring your best self out into the world, and that was the result.

This is an opportunity for you to learn from this experience and do better next time. Maybe pay more attention when you first start to get stressed out. Maybe leave the house five minutes earlier so you aren’t as rushed.

This is how we grow as people, and guilt can be a wonderful teacher.

How to Deal with Guilt When You Didn’t Do Anything Wrong

Buckle up, because this one gets tricky. In some families, guilt is used as manipulation to get people to do what another person wants them to do. Because guilt hurts so much, children growing up in these homes often learn to comply with the other person’s requests in an attempt to avoid feeling guilty.

In other words, some people grow up controlled by guilt, even when they haven’t done anything wrong. They often internalize the guilt so it becomes a running narrative in their own minds. They no longer even need anyone imposing it on them externally!

What makes this guilt so tricky to unravel is that there is no wrong to right to make it go away. Instead, the way to fix this is by changing your patterns of communication so that guilt can no longer be used as a tool to manipulate you.

How to Deal with Guilt When You Aren’t Sure if You Did Anything Wrong

If you’re feeling guilty and you aren’t sure if you did anything wrong, chances are you didn’t. When people aren’t sure if they’ve done anything wrong, it’s usually a sign that they’re so used to living in guilt that they can no longer see beyond the emotion to the truth of the situation. This is a sign of long-standing patterns of guilt-ridden communications.

Essentially, you become so mired in guilt that you can no longer see the situation objectively. If that sounds familiar, look at your close relationships to see if guilt is part of the communication patterns.

Once you understand the type of guilt you’re feeling, you’ll understand whether you’re dealing with a specific situation that has a lesson to impart, or if you’re dealing with unhealthy communication strategies that need to change.

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