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4 Ways to Cope with Guilt

By Stacey Feintuch
Reviewed by Susan Ko, Ph.D.
September 22, 2023

This article is part of a series on how to cope with common feelings that can be tough to experience. Here, experts provide simple strategies for acknowledging and managing guilt.

Guilt can be a difficult, nagging emotion to live with. With the right strategies, though, guilt doesn’t have to weigh heavy on your mind. Here’s how to use guilt for good and let the rest go.

What Is Guilt?

Guilt is an emotion that’s triggered when we feel we've done something wrong or are responsible for something that has gone wrong. “It’s a feeling of remorse or sadness over something we have done or didn’t do,” says Rachel Wright, a licensed therapist who practices in New York City. “We usually experience this emotion when we think we’ve caused harm or done something that goes against our values or morals.”

Guilt is a complex emotion, Wright adds. It may be caused by something straightforward and tangible, like breaking the serving platter you borrowed from a friend. But sometimes guilt can be brought on by things that feel very real, but not actually grounded in reality. For instance, you may feel guilty because you feel you let down a friend by missing a group brunch you said you’d attend—when in reality, your friend was completely understanding.

How Guilt Can Affect Your Well-Being

While uncomfortable, some amount of guilt can actually be helpful, says Justine Carino, a licensed mental health counselor in White Plains, New York. “Guilt can help us process that we may have done something wrong or made a poor choice. It can prompt us to grow, to take accountability, and repair conflicts in relationships.”

Unchecked guilt, however, can sometimes lead to emotional issues, says Kathy Nickerson, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist who practices in Orange County, California. These can include:

  • Negative self-talk
  • Low self-esteem
  • Anxious feelings
  • Decreased mood
  • Relationship problems
  • Feelings of shame

How to Cope with Guilt

A few strategies can help you cope with guilt so you can feel better. Here’s what experts recommend.

1. Lean into Action

Instead of ruminating over or wallowing in feelings of guilt, use them as a springboard to make positive changes. “Guilt is rooted in genuine empathy for others and motivates repairing actions that will alleviate the harm caused to the other person,” says Vernessa Roberts-Govan, a licensed therapist who practices in Sacramento, California.

Addressing the cause of the guilt head-on can be a good first step. This could be repairing or replacing the item you damaged, or taking steps to ensure you don’t double-book over a friend date in the future. “Coping is also about confronting and not avoiding,” Roberts-Govan adds. “Make sure you are truly confronting what this feeling is stemming from, and identifying what you need to find peace with this feeling.”

2. Remember That No One Is Perfect

Acknowledge that perfection doesn’t exist. If you hold yourself to a high standard, even the slightest misstep can make you feel guilty. But when you feel guilt, try to remember that you’re growing and learning as a person.

“Learn what you can and do what you can,” Nickerson says. “When you know better, do better.”

How? “The best place to start is with compassion for yourself,” Nickerson says. Tell yourself you’re human, and you’re allowed to be messy. Then work on forgiving yourself and understanding what led to the situation that made you feel guilty. From a place of understanding, you can move forward.

3. Take Note of Your Positive Traits

Make a list of the kindness you give to others. The positives likely outweigh the negatives. “Be gentle and give yourself the benefit of the doubt,” Nickerson says. “See all the good you do and balance that against the mistakes you might have made.”

4. Talk to Your Trusted Circle

It can be hard to discuss guilt, but talking it out can prove useful. “Support gives outside perspectives and reminders that tell you it’s not your fault,” Wright says. Plus, you can learn that you’re not alone. “It helps to know your feelings are a shared experience of others,” she says.

It's likely your inner circle won’t judge you but will instead offer support, kindness, and compassion. “Ask them to help you come up with different ways to think about the situation,” Nickerson says. They can help you answer questions like, Is your guilt appropriate or excessive? Can you use it to help make the situation better for others?

When to Seek Help

When your guilt prevents you from living your daily life in the way you want to, a mental health professional can help you deal with your feelings. “If you find yourself having obsessive thoughts or ruminating about what you're feeling guilty about, and these thoughts are interfering with your functioning, get help,” says Carino.

“You can also start therapy if you have a desire to let go of guilt but feel stuck in doing so,” she adds.

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