Part of the human experience involves feeling guilty from time to time.  We may feel guilty when we have behaved badly, made a mistake or upset someone else. We might have overstepped the line with a friend and said something unkind or forgotten to send a birthday card.  Raise your hand if you have never done one of the above…OK then, we are all human! This type of guilt may motivate us to remember the birthday next time or watch what we say in future. In other words, it can be helpful.

The trouble is we can get into the habit of beating ourselves up when there has been no ‘crime’ committed. We over think what we believe we have done, start to embellish the story and have ourselves in the dock and banged to rights before you can say, “But it weren’t me Gov’na”. We can call this unhelpful guilt.


Feeling guilty if you don’t meet someone else’s needs?

Some relationships play out with one person hoping that guilt will manipulate the other into doing things – attempting to make the other feel bad for not doing something, going somewhere…sound familiar? Unfortunately, it can be hard to say no to these people and we end up making excuses or going along begrudgingly. Habits can be hard to break but standing your ground and acting assertively might pay off.

Feeling too much guilt about too many things?

This sounds like Betty who is prone to feeling guilty. It’s something that developed early on in her life and although she would rather not experience so much unhealthy guilt, she struggles to break the habit. Here Betty talks about a night out:

Last night it was a friend’s birthday and a group of us went out. I felt bad about leaving the kids with a baby sitter because I work full time in the week. They always cry at the door when I go but apparently they are absolutely fine after I’ve disappeared. Typical!

At the restaurant my friends started talking about where they are going on holiday and I realised that I haven’t booked anywhere yet because I’m not sure I can afford it and then I felt guilty about letting my kids down…I must try to be a better parent. Anyway, it had been such a busy week that I hadn’t had the time to buy the birthday girl a present – she said she didn’t care and was just glad I’d come out, but I’m not sure.

After a few glasses of wine I told my best friend, Annie, that I thought her husband doesn’t pull his weight, leaving her to do most of the stuff around the house. She didn’t really say much, but I must have upset her.  To top it all off, I forgot to bring any cash and someone else had to pay for the taxi home. To be perfectly honest, I wish I’d not gone out because the next day I was wracked with guilt!

Coping with guilt by problem-solving or making amends:

I guess Betty might want to try making amends by apologising to Annie, it can’t change what she said, but if she’s truly sorry it will help maintain the relationship with her friend. Maybe Betty might choose to be more careful what she says when she’s been drinking.

The birthday girl said she didn’t care about the lack of gift and was happy Betty had made the effort to go out. Betty can only accept this as the truth, buy her a belated gift or waste time worrying about it. The choice is hers.

Beating ourselves up, like Betty did when she left her kids with a sitter or for not booking a holiday because she is skint, is unnecessary and unhealthy. All it really does is cause more stress. Betty can spend the next day or week reflecting on the ‘harm’ she has supposedly done and giving her guilt free rein or she could take a few minutes to write her thoughts down and challenge them instead. Put your thoughts in the dock instead and try to get a more balanced perspective based on the evidence!

Guilty thought                

The kids won’t get a decent holiday this year. I’m not a good mother – should be doing better.

Evidence supporting this

I spend money going out and haven’t been able to save up enough.

Evidence that does not support this

I rarely go out, I’m on my own with the kids and we will have a holiday…just one I can afford. I spend enough time with them and other people tell me they seem happy and I am doing a good job.

So, if you are struggling to cope with guilt:

Work out if you have actually done something that has upset someone else or behaved in a way that wasn’t acceptable. Be careful that you haven’t just made up a ‘guilt story’ (or several) like Betty did – it might help if you asked yourself how you would feel if the tables were turned. 

If the answer is NO, let it go because it’s a thought not a fact. If it keeps popping back into your head, find something else to distract yourself!

If the answer is YES, work out if an apology will help or maybe change your behaviour next time. If it’s something you are holding on to from the past, you might find it helpful to talk to someone else about it. We are all going to blunder from time to time, but it’s what we do afterwards that’s important. In the words of the legend Bruce Lee:

Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them.  B

If you are feeling overwhelmed by feelings such as guilt and would like talk to a healthcare professional, then a cognitive behavioural psychotherapist can help you develop coping strategies and challenge the way you are thinking about things. It might be that it’s the way you are perceiving your thoughts, rather than the thoughts themselves that is the issue.