How to Deal with Guilt: 14 Tips for Coping

Guilt is a self-conscious emotion that causes us to feel responsible for negative experiences or outcomes. While everyone feels guilty at times, excessive feelings of regret can interfere with your everyday life. These feelings can be overwhelming, but thankfully, with the right support and tools like online therapy, you can learn how to deal with guilt in a healthy way. 

If you’re dealing with guilt, keep reading to discover coping strategies that can help you move past that negative feeling. The following tips explore some of the most effective ways to manage guilt in healthy, productive ways. 

1. Determine the Source 

People can experience guilty feelings for many reasons. Guilt can help us to learn from our mistakes and change negative behaviors, but it can also be toxic or irrational. An important part of overcoming guilt is figuring out why you’re experiencing these feelings in the first place. 

“Guilt can create a lingering sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach. Feelings of guilt have to be excavated, expressed, and explored. If we don’t address it directly, it may appear as self-sabotaging behavior. Guilt and shame are gateway feelings that can cause depression and feelings of worthlessness if not addressed.”

Talkspace therapist Dr. Karmen Smith, LCSW, DD

When you notice that you’re feeling guilty, take the time to think about where your feelings are coming from. Do you feel guilty because of your behavior? Or is someone else contributing to how you’re feeling? Asking yourself questions can help you begin to understand your emotions so you can deal with them productively.

2. Be Open About Your Feelings

Don’t bottle up your emotions, even if you feel ashamed of your behavior. Living with guilt is easier when you acknowledge and discuss the things you’re feeling. Consider talking about your feelings with someone you trust. 

3. Find Ways to Make Amends

Guilt can be a painful emotion, but it can eventually lead to positive outcomes. Research consistently shows that guilt motivates people to remedy a past mistake. If you’re struggling with guilty feelings about past behaviors, work to make things right with the people that you’ve hurt. 

4. Give Back to Others

Volunteering can be a healthy outlet for guilty feelings. Helping others can improve your mood and give you a sense of purpose and fulfillment. It’s a great way to replace a negative feeling with positive emotions. 

5. Look for Distractions

Guilt can be overpowering. If intense guilt is causing you stress, keeping you from getting enough sleep, or making it hard to concentrate, try to focus your attention elsewhere. Even if you’re not sure how to deal with unhealthy guilt, a relaxing activity can help you to calm down and unwind. 

6. Practice Self-Compassion 

It’s important to be kind to yourself, even when you feel like you’ve done something wrong. Think about how you would respond to a friend who’s struggling with the same emotions that you’re experiencing. Instead of beating yourself up for your mistakes, treat yourself with patience and kindness. 

7. Focus On the Things You Can Control

After identifying the source of your guilt, consider if there’s anything you can do to improve the situation. While taking action can be an effective way of dealing with guilt, it might be helpful to acknowledge that some situations are simply beyond your control. Instead of ruminating on things you can’t change, try redirecting your energy to things you have some control over. 

8. Consider What You’d Do Differently Next Time

There’s no way to change past events, but thinking about what you’d do differently can keep you from making the same mistakes in the future. How would you behave if you had the chance to turn back the clock? While you shouldn’t obsess over the past, it can be helpful to look back at past events constructively. 

9. Stop Negative Self-Talk

Not only can self-criticism make guilty feelings worse, but it can also be damaging to your physical and mental well-being, according to research. Try to become more aware of your negative self-talk and challenge your beliefs. When engaging in self-criticism, try to shift to positive self-talk instead. 

10. Establish Healthy Boundaries 

You don’t have to feel guilty for saying no or setting aside time for yourself. An essential part of learning how to deal with guilt is setting healthy relationship boundaries with the people in your life. Having clear boundaries can help you advocate for yourself and avoid guilty feelings. 

11. Treat Mistakes as Opportunities 

Mistakes can lead to negative outcomes, but they can also be valuable learning opportunities. If you’ve done something wrong, acknowledge it and think about how you can make different choices in the future. Reframing a past mistake and treating your missteps can be a chance to grow. 

12. Learn to Forgive Yourself

Overcoming guilt isn’t easy when you’ve done something that’s hurt people you care about. While you should take responsibility for your behavior, you shouldn’t forget that you’re worthy of forgiveness. Forgiving yourself can help you move on from guilty feelings and work on self-improvement.

13. Practice Gratitude 

Ruminating about past mistakes isn’t always constructive. Practicing gratitude can help you let go of guilt and focus on your positive qualities. Whether you start a gratitude journal or make a point of telling people thank you, look for ways to replace guilt with gratitude. 

14. Talk to a Therapist

If you can’t figure out how to cope with the guilt you’re feeling, it might be time to discuss your feelings with a mental health professional. Unhealthy guilt can be a symptom of depression, and persistent guilty feelings are sometimes linked to trauma. Therapy can be a way to acknowledge, address, and let go of guilt and mitigate its effect on your life.

“Keeping feelings of guilt and shame inside without addressing them is the worst response. The best response is to explore with a neutral, nonjudgmental party your thoughts that haven’t been shared. As you begin to bring things to the surface, they might lose their hold on your worth and value as a person. You can then forgive yourself.”

Talkspace therapist Dr. Karmen Smith, LCSW, DD

Knowing When It’s Time to Get Help

Healthy guilt can be a form of empathy, but constant feelings of guilt can increase the risk of anxiety and depression. If living with guilt makes it difficult for you to enjoy life or focus on everyday tasks and activities, you may need professional help. 

Therapy can help you to work through feelings of guilt and shame and learn more about where your difficult emotions are coming from. While making amends isn’t always possible, a therapist can help you learn how to deal with guilt and forgive yourself.  

Get Professional Help with Talkspace

Don’t let guilt overtake your life. If you’re always feeling guilty from a guilt complex, Talkspace online therapy can help. With the support of a therapist, you can process your emotions, find helpful coping mechanisms, and learn to let go of guilt that might be interfering with your ability to live a full, healthy, rewarding life. 


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