Guilt is a very powerful emotion. And it often comes when you feel responsible for others.
If you’ve lived with the guilt of worrying about others for long enough, you know that this insidious feeling can worm its way into any situation, affecting everything in your life.
But believe it or not, for something so crippling, guilt can come from the simplest of things.
In this article, I’ll explain how to stop feeling responsible for others, why guilt is normal, and the simple ways you can overcome guilt.
“Habitual guilt” is a real thing
Have you ever heard of the phrase, “habitual guilt”?
Well, it’s actually a thing.
In a study conducted by The Spanish Journal of Psychology, researchers explain that women are more prone to feelings of habitual guilt compared to men.
Regardless, millennials — both men and women — often find themselves feeling guilty. Most particularly for taking vacations.
In a British study, researchers found that people spend over six hours a week feeling guilty. The causes range from procrastination, shopping, swearing and even snoring.
In fact, guilt might as well be a global epidemic.
The nature of guilt is, however complex. While the reasons behind them sound simple, they oftentimes come in small doses which may lead to being habitual.
According to psychologist Dr. Guy Winch:
“Guilt is a common feeling of emotional distress that signals us when our actions or inactions have caused or might cause harm to another person—physical, emotional, or otherwise.
“Because guilt typically occurs in “micro-bursts” of brief signals, we often underestimate the rather significant role it plays in our daily lives.”
10 powerful ways to stop feeling so guilty all of the time
Recognizing that you have feelings of habitual or toxic guilt is already a step towards feeling better about yourself. Here are some simple ways to help you stop feeling guilty.
1. Appreciate yourself
We tend to be our own worst critics. Particularly when it comes to our feelings of shortcomings or unworthiness.
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According to psychologist Melanie Greenberg:
“Guilt and perfectionism have a negative bias. They make you pay attention to what you’re not doing right.”
Focus on the things you are doing right.
Compliment yourself in front of the mirror. Celebrate your little “wins” in life. Treat yourself like you’re your own biggest cheerleader.
You’ll notice a huge change immediately.
2. Stop “magnifying” everything
Stop overthinking all your mistakes and faults.
Most of the time, you’re the only one magnifying the situation yourself.
But the truth is, you’re not doing as bad as you think. You believing it is the problem.
“More often than not, the belief that you are bad contributes to the “bad” behavior. Change and learning occur most readily when you (a) recognize that an error has occurred and (b) develop a strategy for correcting the problem. An attitude of self-love and relaxation facilitates this, whereas guilt often interferes.”
Instead of putting yourself in a mental prison, use your energy to do something productive about your problem.
Focus on what you can do, instead of berating yourself negatively.
3. Be proactive instead
Here’s the thing:
The more you focus on things you can’t control, the less time you have to focus on the things you can control.
Proaction involves self-chosen actions—choices that are thought of with long term goals in mind.
According to organizational behavior expert Thomas Bateman:
“Behaving proactively is distinctive and vital because most of what we do is pretty passive, and dictated by past habits and routines, current circumstances and pressures, or biases that support the status quo and keep us on a familiar path.
“Proaction thus differs markedly from our most common behaviors. The more significant the trajectory change that you attempt, and the more substantial and widespread the impact over time, the more proactive your actions.”
In that sense, you can replace your habitual guilt by being constantly proactive instead.
4. Keep a journal
Have you ever heard of a ‘gratitude journal?’ Well, there’s also a thing called a guilt journal.
You’ll be amazed at the amazing benefits of keeping a journal—not just for coping with guilt—but on your overall mental and emotional health as well.
Researchers from Harvard University Business School discovered that writing down small, even insignificant details of your life can have a huge impact later on.
Writing down your thoughts on paper somehow feels like a therapy of sorts. As you write, everything seems to make more sense and you’re able to understand exactly what you’re feeling and why.
Perhaps it’s hard for you to pinpoint the reason behind your guilt and journalling just might help.
5. Go on a vacation or travel alone
Traveling, like writing, is something that pushes you towards self-discovery.
And the best part?
The novelty of being in an unfamiliar place distracts you from your self-imposed guilt. Instead, you’re forced to look at your life in a way that teaches you gratitude.
And if there’s an antidote to guilt or shame, it’s gratitude.
According to psychiatrist Dr. Jean Kim:
“Travel helps on an interpersonal growth level as well; seeing different people and cultures and encountering them directly as individuals and human beings opens yourself to becoming more tolerant and flexible about unfamiliar ways of life.
“Your sense of empathy can increase, which can help you feel better able to negotiate interpersonal issues back home as well.”
6. Be selfish
The word “selfish” has an ugly connotation attached to it.
Who can blame you from trying to avoid being labeled as one?
But there’s nothing wrong with putting yourself first.
In fact, you must take yourself and your mental and emotional health in top consideration.
According to University of Texas clinical assistant professor of psychiatry Melissa Deuter:
“If you have a well-developed sense of who you are, what you enjoy and the ability to communicate this to others, you’ll be a happier person. Putting yourself first is not a negative quality; it’s your job to take care of yourself and get what you need.”
Remember one thing when you’re feeling guilty about doing something for yourself: it’s not selfish —it’s healthy.
7. Be honest
In her TEDx talk, Honest Liars: The Psychology of Self-Deception clinical psychologist Cortney Warren talks about the lies we tell ourselves and the damage they cause in our lives.
“Humans are masters of self-deception. We fool ourselves into believing things that are false and we believe to refuse to believe things that are true.
“At the core, we lie to ourselves because we don’t have the psychological strength to admit the truth and deal with the consequences that will follow.”
Generally, we are guilty when we lie to others. But when we lie to ourselves, the wound is far deeper.
Here’s a simple truth:
If you live your life honestly, you don’t have anything to be guilty for.
8. Forgive yourself.
The forgiveness that you need the most must come from yourself.
And here’s the interesting thing:
Forgiveness doesn’t help because it absolves you of guilt. Rather, it helps by making you accountable for your wrongs.
In short: it teaches you to take responsibility for your own life.
In her book, The Willpower Instinct, psychologist Kelly McGonigal says:
“Surprisingly, it’s forgiveness, not guilt, that increases accountability.
“Researchers have found that taking a self-compassionate point of view on a personal failure makes people more likely to take personal responsibility for the failure than when they take a self-critical point of view.
“They also are more willing to receive feedback and advice from others, and more likely to learn from the experience.”
Do yourself a favor and forgive yourself for your worst mistakes.
9. Cut yourself some slack.
We all need to be kinder to ourselves – that’s a universal truth.
In her book, Self Compassion, author Kristin Neff, Ph.D., says:
“The bottom line is that according to the science, self-compassion appears to offer the same advantages as high self-esteem, with no discernible downsides.
“The first thing to know is that self-compassion and self-esteem do tend to go together. If you’re self-compassionate, you’ll tend to have higher self-esteem than if you’re endlessly self-critical.
And like high self-esteem—self-compassion is associated with significantly less anxiety and depression, as well as more happiness, optimism, and positive emotions.”
Remind yourself this: you are not a bad person. So stop feeling guilty. It’s important to recognize your flaws and mistakes yes. But you need to be kinder to yourself.
10. Apologize properly
… and genuinely.
If you’ve wronged someone and want to get rid of your guilt, you need to apologize the right way.
What does that mean?
According to Dr. Winch, apologizing simply for the sake of it is a big mistake.
“Therein lays the problem. Because while such motivations are well and good, none of them reflect what the apology actually aims to achieve.”
So how do you apologize correctly, especially to assuage guilt?
“The primary goal of your apology should be to ease that person’s emotional burden and garner their authentic forgiveness. As a bonus (and an important one), and only if your apology is effective, your own feelings of guilt or regret will ease.”
A true apology is saying: “I am sorry my actions hurt you.”
Most importantly, it should also include: “I’m responsible for my actions, and I will change what needs to be changed.”
Only then can you ease the guilt of having wronged someone, and become a better person, too.
Why do we feel guilty?
We feel guilty because our brain rewards the feeling.
Sounds crazy right?
But it’s true.
In the book, The Upward Spiral, by Alex Korb, he explains:
“Despite their differences, pride, shame, and guilt all activate similar neural circuits, including the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, amygdala, insula, and the nucleus accumbens.
“Interestingly, pride is the most powerful of these emotions at triggering activity in these regions — except in the nucleus accumbens, where guilt and shame win out. This explains why it can be so appealing to heap guilt and shame on ourselves — they’re activating the brain’s reward center.”
Ever wondered why they call it the “guilty pleasure?”
When we feel guilty that we’re doing something wrong, our brain is given a “rush”, giving us a good feeling.
This is why habitual guilt is addicting. You just have to go through “withdrawal” to rid yourself of all your guilt.
Why do women feel more guilty?
A controversial study published in Europe’s Journal of Psychology revealed that women feel more guilt compared to men.
It’s because of the societal pressures put on women.
According to the researchers:
“Women are brought up to care for and be morally responsible for others, while men are raised to follow an ethic of righteousness and justice.
“This upbringing for men creates autonomy and some sort of separation of one’s moral judgment of others. On the other hand ethics of care emerges from a sense of responsibility.”
The truth is, to some degree, women are punished more severely for the same mistakes men commit, just because “boys will be boys.”
The study’s lead researcher, Itziar Etxebarria, explains:
“This is caused by certain educational practices, which demand more of females, and which are sometimes still in use despite belief to the contrary.”
But what can we do? How can we stop making women feel so guilty?
The world is already changing rapidly and gender biases are slowly disappearing. However, there are still blatant problems that need solving.
Etxebarria suggests going to the root of the problem.
“Educational practices and a whole range of socialising agents must be used to reduce the trend towards anxious-aggressive guilt among women and to strengthen interpersonal sensitivity among men.”
Guilt can be healthy
Look at it this way:
Everything in moderation.
Guilt is healthy when it motivates you to live according to your own set of morals or ideals.
In fact, science has proven many times that guilt has its purpose.
According to this study published in the Harvard Business Review, guilt is actually quite important in our lives. The study claims:
“People who are prone to guilt tend to work harder and perform better than people who are not guilt-prone, and are perceived to be more capable leaders.”
Another study suggests that people who often feel guilty, make the best partners, friends, and family:
“…people who expect to feel guilty tend to be more sympathetic, to put themselves into other people’s shoes, to think about the consequences of their behaviour before acting, and to treasure their morals.
“As a result they are less prone to lie, cheat or behave immorally when they conduct a business deal or spot an opportunity to make money, studies suggest.”
Guilt can be a compass for you to do better and be better. The only problem is when it stops you from moving forward.
It’s unhealthy when…
“Excessive” feelings of guilt, however, can damage your quality of life and affect your overall emotional health.
It can even contribute to clinical depression.
It is, in fact, one of the symptoms associated with this mental illness, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
“Study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control. It is also one of the single biggest predictors of depression, which drains both “I will” power and “I want” power.”
Not only that, but it can also help feelings of unworthiness, stress, and can amplify childhood or other forms of trauma.
Suffice to say, guilt is at the center of most of humanity’s debilitating mental health issues.
Is the guilt appropriate?
Here’s the secret on how to best handle guilt:
Ask yourself: is it appropriate to the situation?
Guilt is good when it keeps your behavior in check. It’s the conscience that demands you to treat people, yourselves, and situations with respect.
Guilt is bad when it doesn’t contribute anything to the situation to be better.
According to relationship expert and bestselling author Dr. Margaret Paul:
“Toxic guilt is inappropriate guilt – guilt that comes from self-judgments regarding having done something wrong when there is no actual wrongdoing.”
The next time you feel guilt creeping up on you, check the reasons and check if it’s appropriate for you to feel it or not.
There’s one important thing you need to remember:
Torturing yourself doesn’t do anything.
It doesn’t make you a better person. And it certainly doesn’t make you feel better.
Guilt is something that can help, in small doses—and if the doses are right.
Life is already ruthless as it is without you constantly criticizing and berating yourself for imaginary wrongdoings.
Do you know what does help?
Learning from your mistakes. Assessing your feelings of guilt. Unraveling the roots of your problem.
So don’t just sit there and feel guilty, either process it, let it go or do something about it.