It’s estimated that people spend about 5 hours a week feeling guilty, whether it’s eating something they shouldn’t or making a comment that didn’t land well. Guilt is a terrible feeling, so what should you do if you can’t seem to shake it?
If you think you’re experiencing more grief than the average person, fret not. There are ways to alleviate your grief and get on with living your life.
Why Do You Feel Guilt?
Guilt is such an awful and downright painful emotion to feel. It’s a puzzle as to why the human brain experiences it, but researchers are getting closer to finding the answer. Scientists from Indiana State University point to evolutionary origins as to why people feel guilt.
For traits to evolve, they need to be passed down from generation to generation over thousands of years. These traits can pass down on an individual level, such as a man’s personality passing down to his son, or in groups. How people behave in groups is subject to change over time also, and group dynamics can then be reinforced on an individual level — such as with guilt.
To boil it down, the researchers state that guilt arose for the betterment of human groups. Guilt is an emotion that revolves around actions, so if someone acted in a way that harmed the group, they feel a negative emotion that deters them from repeating that action in the future.
Guilt is different from emotions that are self-focused, such as shame or embarrassment, as you can be guilty about accidentally hurting someone but not feel shame at being an inherently violent person.
There’s a difference in guilt that makes it more advantageous to group dynamics. Since humans are social creatures that rely on one another for survival, guilt allowed the whole group to benefit from relative normalcy without aberrant individuals screwing things up. If you feel bad for screwing things up, you won’t do it in the future.
So at some point, early humans started to feel guilty when they acted in a way against the group’s best interests. Those groups must have outperformed groups in which people acted without guilt — say a hunter accidentally hurts another hunter and continues to do so because he’s not as mindful of his actions as the guiltier group.
When traits cause individuals or groups to survive better than others, those traits get passed down throughout the years, which is why we feel guilty today.
Guilt isn’t some paranormal phenomenon. Ghosts or spirits don’t make you feel guilty — there are structures in the brain that facilitate the emotion.
Lots of intense emotions, such as pride, shame, and guilt, light up related neural circuits in the brain, including the amygdala, dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, and nucleus accumbens.
Guilt and shame tend to be experienced strongest in the nucleus accumbens, though, which is also where the brain’s reward center is. That’s why it feels somewhat pleasurable to heap more guilt onto yourself. You’re making your brain feel good to do so, even if the emotions hurt. It’s like pressing a bruise in your brain — you can’t seem to stop.
Now knowing this about your neuroscience helps put your guilt into perspective. You’re falling into a trap laid out by your brain’s wiring to feel guilty then continuously relive that pain. Remembering that pleasurable pain over and over can spur to habit change that can benefit the overall group, as described in the evolutionary benefits of guilt section.
Those who feel guilty tend to be more empathetic, sympathetic, and able to think about the consequences of their actions before they do them.
People who feel guilty tend to have good moral codes and care about others. In short, they’re not jerks who try to be courteous and kind to those around them and feel bad when they sometimes transgress.
Feeling guilty can be a great personality trait to have as it can make you a better student, partner, worker, and overall member of society.
Different Kinds of Guilt
You might have guessed it based on your feelings of guilt. There are particular categories of guilt that have different causes and thus need different resolutions.
This is the type of guilt based on failing to achieve the standards you set for yourself. You showed to yourself that you’re not the type of person you are, and you feel guilty as a result.
A good example would be dieting. You’re doing so well on your diet, then all of a sudden, you have a craving for something unhealthy, like a piece of cake.
“It’s just a craving, and I don’t need it,” you tell yourself. “I can make do with some fruit.”
But the craving keeps tugging at you until you finally give in. You eat that piece of cake with pleasure, but afterward, you feel guilty.
The reason for the guilt is that you did something you weren’t supposed to do — even though you’re most likely the only one who cares about what you eat on this new diet you’re on. As a result, you’ll have to either compensate by exercising more or eating healthier in the next few meals you eat.
Beyond that, though, you feel guilty because you showed you lack the willpower to push through moments of cravings for the betterment of your health. You feel guilty because you acted in a way that makes you feel bad about yourself.
But it’s likely that unless you feel extreme guilt about eating that cake or whatever else caused you to feel guilty; you’re not going to implement the necessary habit change to stop that action again because guilt is less effective on yourself and more powerful when it involves other people.
Guilt from a Hypothetical
You’re driving your car on a sunny afternoon. Families with small children walk on the sidewalk next to the road minding their own business as you mind yours.
All of a sudden, you have the urge to yank the wheel to the right and mow down one of those families.
If you have impulse control, you won’t do that. Most intrusive thoughts like that rarely get acted upon. But it was still a violent and horrible thought your brain conjured up, and you feel guilty for even thinking about it.
You’re not the type of person to do that, right? You’re a good person. There’s no way you’d do that, so why would you even think about it? You must be a psychopath.
It turns out that these types of intrusive thoughts are incredibly normal and harmless. These types of thoughts can point to a strong fear of hurting others, which is the case for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It’s not your brain wanting you to hurt others, rather wanting you to feel so guilty about the idea that you never harm someone.
No matter the underlying reasons why, we can still feel guilty for just thinking about doing something. If you grew up strongly religious or in a strict household, you might feel guilty about thoughts that are blasphemous to your upbringing, such as with sex or drugs.
Whether or not you act upon your thoughts, just thinking about the hypothetical scenarios your brain thinks up is enough to riddle you with guilt.
Guilt From Harmful Actions Done to Others
This is perhaps the most tangible guilt one may feel, the type of guilt that makes you physically cringe when you remember it.
Perhaps it was something destructive you said in a fit of anger, then watching the recipients face fall in shock. Maybe you made someone cry. Maybe you accidentally hurt someone, physically or emotionally.
You could have acted in self-interest that made you regret your behavior. Maybe you stole money from an older adult you helped around the house, or you stole from a childhood friend when they weren’t looking.
Remembering past actions of harm you did to others hurts, there’s no other way to describe it. If your brain trudges up these memories now, it wants you to know how strongly it wished you hadn’t done what you did to hurt another.
Survivors of war, mass shootings, diseases like cancer, plane crashes, and other life-threatening events sometimes believe their life came at the cost of someone else’s. For them to survive, another person had to die.
That’s not the case, and yet survivor guilt can have severe repercussions on someone’s mental health. Sydney Aiello, a survivor of the 2018 Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, had one of her close friends die in the onslaught. A year later, at the age of 19, she died by suicide. It is believed that the survivor’s guilt contributed to her decision to commit suicide.
Survivor’s guilt is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, and symptoms can involve flashbacks to the event, insomnia, social isolation, lack of motivation, and suicidal thoughts. It can be a severe condition that debilitates someone’s life.
While some mental duress is expected after surviving a life-threatening condition, it’s best to seek help from a psychiatric professional if survivor’s guilt interferes with your daily functioning.
With climate change set to destroy the ecosystems around the world, agricultural productivity, and millions of people’s livelihoods, why aren’t you doing enough to reduce your carbon footprint? You should be planting trees and going vegan!
It can be white guilt, rich guilt, male guilt, feeling guilty for living in a developed nation or having grown up the way you did. Especially when it comes to economics, you had advantages that other people didn’t, and so you feel guilty for living a better life than underprivileged folks.
In addition, you could feel guilty for not doing enough with your life. It’s your one life, so why aren’t you working hard every day to live your life to the fullest? Why did you waste your youth doing nothing when you could be building a business like other successful young entrepreneurs.
The existential guilt we feel is perhaps the hardest to treat, but we still feel it.
How to Stop Feeling Guilty
Ask How Much You Can Do
Let’s say you feel guilty about egregiously bullying someone when you and your victim were eight years old.
Now that you’re both well into adulthood, you’ve lost contact with each other and haven’t spoken in years. And yet, you’re still plagued by this feeling of guilt for having harmed that person.
You could contact that person and apologize as an adult for your past behavior, but you’d be trudging up memories that happened when you both were different people. That person might not even remember what you did. If they do, they might have healed from it and moved on.
You could also decide to not intrude on that person’s life anymore and deal with your guilt on your own — without the help of a mental health professional. Or you could get a therapist to help you stop feeling guilty.
Existential guilt, self-guilt, and survivor’s guilt are rather personal guilts that can be dealt with with the help of a mental health professional.
But when it comes to tackling guilt you’ve done to others, you have to seriously weigh your options and decide if apologizing to that person is worth it to stop feeling guilty.
When lots of time has passed, there’s only so much an apology can do, and you can never be sure if saying sorry will help or further hurt a victim. But every situation is unique, so you have some serious thinking to do.
Make Evidence of Your Guilt
Instead of past actions, let’s say you feel guilty for the current situation you’re in. For example, you feel like you lack as a parent and feel like you’re too absent in your children’s lives.
To help see if your guilt is unfounded or not, make a physical list of what you do for your children. Be honest and vulnerable with yourself. On the pros side, you list that you provide food, shelter, and stability every day. On the cons, you list that you missed a play or sometimes yell at your children.
If there’s a lot of serious stuff on the cons side, it could behoove you to apologize to your kids. If there’s not, you can assuage yourself and know that you’re a good parent and that your feelings of guilt might be in your head.
Communicate With the People in Your Life
Again using the kids example, instead of thinking you’re not doing enough for your kids and feeling guilty about it, actually talk to your kids.
Ask them, “Is there more you wish I could do for you? Do you ever feel like I’m not doing enough as a parent?”
Listen to their response. If your child is hesitant, allow them to come back to you if they think of anything.
If your child thinks you’re providing everything for them, then you don’t have anything to feel guilty about.
Opening up communication channels improves any relationship, whether romantic, platonic, professional, or parental. And talking to those around you can help you have more growth to do in certain aspects of your character so that you can stop feeling guilty about what you lack.
If you think it would help you stop feeling guilty once and for all, reaching out to the people you’ve hurt can be enough to make you stop feeling guilty.
The most important thing, though, is to apologize correctly.
People can always tell when an apology is insincere or done for the wrong reasons. If your apology sounds like it’s just to make you feel better without it showing that you genuinely understand that you hurt someone, then your apology can just feel like another slap in the face. Yet again, you’re using that person to make yourself feel better.
So if you want to truly make amends, communicate that you acknowledge how your past actions hurt someone and show that you’re a different person, ensure you make a stellar apology.
Signs of an Effective, Sincere Apology
- Tailor your apology to the recipient. An apology will be different for a friend, lover, teacher, or parent.
- Take ownership of what you did.
- Clearly state that the action you did was wrong.
- Show empathy and clearly state that you see how your actions affected the victim.
- Then express remorse for having hurt the victim the way you did.
- Don’t blame others for how you behaved. Introducing scapegoats is immature and shows that you don’t accept the consequences of your actions. You can provide explanations but never excuses.
- Avoid “if,” “but,” and “maybe.” “If” is a conditional word, so it signals that you don’t accept the reality of what happened. “But” negates everything you said before it, and “maybe” shows a lack of commitment to what happened or what will happen. You want your apologies to be direct and concrete, not wishy-washy.
- Overall, you are focused on the recipient of the apology and how they feel instead of the speaker (meaning you.)
Reflect on What You’ve Learned
You can always glean a lesson from guilt, primarily when that guilt stems from an action done to another.
If you yelled at someone after your car got a flat tire, it might mean that you tend to yell at people when you’re angry. If you can’t help but eat lots of ice cream when you do poorly on a test, it indicates you struggle with emotional eating.
Your guilt could stem from the immaturity of some sort. We all tend to lack emotional maturity and intelligence when we’re young, so we act in ways that can feel good to us but are harmful to others.
If you feel you’ve been toxic to those around you for whatever reasons, ruminate on that time of your life to tease out how you can change. Life lessons and more experience can illuminate the real-world education that will help you modify your behavior.
In all, probe deeper into the reasons why you feel guilty to identify the underlying causes why you act/ed that way.
Resolve to Modify Your Behavior
One of the best ways to stop feeling guilty is to promise that you will become a better person after having acted wrongfully.
Whether you want to stop lying to others, take up meditation to help you control your emotions, or donate money to charities, only you can decide how best to modify your behavior so that you’re not the same person committing the harmful acts that make you feel guilty.
Acknowledge that you are not the person you were when you did that wrong thing. It could have happened ten years ago or ten days ago.
You are continually growing as a person. You are constantly learning new things about the world and yourself.
Whoever you were in the past is not the person you are now — you’re better. You’re more intelligent, resilient, and aware of your actions.
Therefore, forgive yourself for having acted the way you did. That person is not you anymore, and so it’s rather silly to carry the burden of someone who is no longer here.
Change Your Mindset About Guilt
Yes, guilt hurts. It can make you crumple into yourself, grabbing your head as you scrunch your face at remembering a memory.
But guilt can also be a gift. If you don’t have empathy or the ability to reflect on your behavior, you don’t feel guilt. You don’t know how to improve and be a better person in the lives of those around you.
Therefore, see guilt as the benefit it is to your life. It’s one of the best learning tools evolution gave humans so that they can better themselves and align themselves with their value system.
When you act by how you think you should act, you not only benefit those around you by being a less toxic person, but you can help give your life meaning as well.
See guilt as a teacher. Use your guilt to motivate self-improvement. That’s one of the best ways to stop feeling guilty.
Is Your Guilt Healthy or Unhealthy?
Most of us feel guilty for some of the things we did in the past, but overall we couldn’t say that we’re guilty people.
But if you’re the judge of your guilt, how do you know if your guilt is healthy or not healthy? Since guilt is an inherently painful emotion telling you that you did something terrible, can you tell if the guilt you feel is warranted?
Here are ways to tell if your guilt is healthy or unhealthy.
- Your guilt comes from sporadically. It hurts to remember what you’ve done, but you can overall get on with your life.
- You can separate your previous actions from who you are as a person. So, for example, you acknowledge that hitting a boy in the third grade was wrong, but you don’t consider yourself a bad person.
- You see guilt as a reflection of your empathy and ability to reflect on past actions.
- You use your guilt as a motivator for self-improvement.
Overall, your guilt comes from a place of taking responsibility for your actions and having a conscious. This guilt boosts you rather than degrades you (even if your guilt hurts a little).
- You want to hurt yourself or others because you feel so guilty.
- You feel guilty even when you didn’t do anything wrong. This is the sign of an abusive relationship. This type of guilt comes up when you do something for yourself without the intent of harming others, such as going hours without checking your phone even though your partner called you. If your partner is upset and you feel guilty, check if your guilt is warranted.
- Someone blames you for their actions, and you thus feel responsible for hardship in another person’s life.
- Your guilt lowers your self-acceptance, self-confidence, or self-esteem.
- You have symptoms of other mental illnesses, like depression, anxiety, an eating disorder, or OCD.
What to Do If You Constantly Feel Guilty
Tell yourself the following:
- You did the best that you could at the time of that action. You didn’t know then what you know now, and so you can’t hold your previous self to the standard you currently have for yourself.
- You are not to blame for something that happened outside of your control, such as a tragic event.
- The standards you place for yourself might be too high. Stop beating yourself up for perfectionist or unrealistic standards. Also, be mindful of unattainable standards others, such as a parent, partner, friend, or general public, foist upon you.
- If you can’t feel happy or go about your life due to your guilt, you need to see a mental health professional.
A little built of guilt is normal and healthy, and knowing the ways to move past them can help you grow as a person. Unhealthy guilt can obstruct your life, so it’s best to seek help rather than trying to rationalize it.