Why do I feel so guilty all the time?

If you are drawn to reading this article, the chances are guilt is something you struggle with. The battle with guilt is something many humans have in common. And I have worked with many clients who seek to understand 'Why do I feel so guilty all the time?’

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First, let's consider why we experience the feeling of guilt. All feelings are messengers, we experience them to alert us to the fact that something is going on for us. So when you experience guilt, which is a very uncomfortable feeling for most people, you are motivated to act by making amends. Alleviating ‘feeling bad’ and hopefully learning from the situation, so you do not repeat it in the future. 

Feeling guilty when you have done something wrong, then putting things right and learning from it for the future, help you to develop a moral compass. This process will hopefully help develop your internal integrity and give you an opportunity to do things differently in the future. 

However, guilt can be more complicated than this. As humans, we can experience both ‘true guilt’ and ‘false guilt’. And it’s not always easy to tell the difference between the two.


What is the difference between true guilt and false guilt?

True guilt occurs when you have done something wrong that was within your control, which harmed another or caused a negative event. You can usually identify the event that has made you feel guilty. Making amends, apologising or stopping the behaviour, will ease your guilt

False guilt usually originates from expectations placed upon you by yourself or other people. False guilt usually arises from your negative thoughts and is often based on things that are not within your control or something external. Making amends doesn’t make you feel better and instead, you may find yourself stuck in a cycle of more negative thoughts, more guilty feelings and self-blame. False guilt is toxic.

Let’s consider some examples.  

“Rita has been texting her best friend’s boyfriend. It was innocent at first but has now become flirtatious.  He has asked Rita to meet up and has even said he would rather be with her than her friend. Rita had enjoyed the attention at first, but now feels very guilty.” 

This is an example of true guilt. Rita has been disloyal to her friend, even if it wasn’t her original intention to do so. She now feels guilty for her actions. This guilt results in Rita deciding to stop texting her friend’s boyfriend (change behaviour) and to confess, then apologise to her friend (making amends). Rita’s best friend appreciates the apology but no longer trusts her friend and they stop spending time together. This outcome may help Rita learn not to repeat this behaviour in the future. 

“Sandra has been looking after her grandchildren three days a week so her daughter could return to work. She enjoys spending time with the children, though is finding it quite tiring. Sandra’s daughter has decided to take more hours at work, without checking in with Sandra so that she can look after the children on Saturday as well. Her daughter assumes that Sandra ‘should’ be willing to be there when needed, as the children’s grandmother. Sandra doesn’t want to say no to her daughter at first, but this extra day takes its toll and Sandra has to spend all day in bed on Sundays two weeks in a row to recover. The thought of telling her daughter that she can’t look after the children for four days a week leaves Sandra feeling very guilty. She thinks “I should be able to help my daughter” and “I don’t want to disappoint her”.  

This is an example of false guilt. Sandra has good intentions of wanting to help her daughter and is not being honest about how tiring she is finding things, through fear of disappointing her daughter. Sandra’s daughter has placed this expectation on her mother and Sandra has now placed it on herself. The guilty thoughts Sandra is having are irrational and are causing her to continue to put a strain on her physical and mental health. Sandra is protecting her daughter’s life and feelings to the detriment of her own. She may be worrying about what her daughter will think of her if she asks to reduce the childcare hours. Which is likely to bring up even more false guilty thoughts and feelings. 

As you can see from these examples, identifying if your guilt is rational and true or irrational and false can help to determine your next steps. 


So how do I know if it’s true or false guilt? 

The first place to start is through self-reflection. The process of pausing to reflect increases your self-awareness. If you are aware of thought patterns, cycles of self-blame and irrational thoughts - you are in a better place to work on identifying, understanding and reframing them. The next time you are triggered into feeling guilty, try these steps:

  1. Feelings are often experienced as physical sensations in our bodies. Notice what happens to you physically when you feel guilty. Where do you experience this in your physical body? (Examples: a knotted feeling in your stomach, a tightness in your chest, the sensation of being unable to swallow in your throat). 
  2. Sit with the feeling. Notice the thoughts that you are having, don’t engage with them or try to reason with them at this stage, just notice. There can be a tendency to want to escape, numb or distract from uncomfortable feelings such as guilt. Notice if you want to make a drink, eat something or scroll on your phone (to name but a few examples). 
  3. Turn your attention to reflect on why you feel guilty. Remember just because you think something doesn’t mean it’s true. Think about what happened. Was it within your control? Could you make amends to put things right? What would an observer say if they witnessed the event from start to finish? Identify if you believe the guilt is true or false guilt. 
  4. If you believe it is true guilt, come up with a plan of how you can make amends. If you believe it is false guilt, reflect on where the pressure is coming from. If it’s from another person, could you have a conversation with them and put some boundaries in place? If it’s from you, it's very likely to be based upon irrational thoughts and expectations you have put on yourself. Work on debating the thoughts you are having to see if you can reach another perspective. Are they fact-based or opinion-based? Where is the evidence to back up your thoughts? What would you say to a good friend who was thinking in that way? It can be useful to write your exploration down or journal about it; journalling engages our logical left brain - helping us to find objective truth. 
  5. Whether it’s false or true guilt, make a conscious decision to forgive yourself and anybody else involved.  Hopefully, you have made your decision on how to make amends or reached a new perspective, by following the previous steps. Now it’s time to let go of the guilt and show yourself some self-compassion. Take a nice deep breath in through your nose and exhale long and loud through your mouth… let it go.  Repeat this a few times. 
  6. Remind yourself of your new thought/perspective or plan to make amends by using an affirmation or restating the new thought.  For example, true guilt: “I will apologise and will not make that mistake again. I forgive myself and let it go". False guilt: “I have the best intentions to help and have nothing to feel guilty about.”

Please remember that doing something that makes you feel guilty, doesn’t make you a bad person. Labelling yourself negatively for your actions in this way will only make you feel worse. If you’ve done something that you truly feel guilty for and you make amends for that, forgiving yourself is so important. Your actions and other people’s perspectives of you do not define you. You can make amends and learn from situations. 

In conclusion, it’s important to recognise whether the guilt you are experiencing is true rational guilt that you have the power to make amends for and learn from. Or if it is irrational self-blame-based false guilt. Whether you identify guilt as true or false, it's important to be compassionate to yourself and forgive, before letting it go. Otherwise, there is a danger that you will become trapped in a cycle of guilty thoughts and uncomfortable feelings about something you have done everything within your control to change or make amends for. 

If you are constantly identifying guilt as something you struggle with and you would like to work with me, to hopefully find some fresh perspective and peace from these thoughts, please get in touch by email to book a session. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Leigh-on-Sea SS9 & Leigh-On-Sea SS9
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Written by Katy Acton, BA (hons), MBACP Accred. Counsellor and Psychotherapist
Leigh-on-Sea SS9 & Leigh-On-Sea SS9

Katy Acton (BA Hons, MBACP) is an integrative Counsellor and Psychotherapist with a private practice in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, also online and by telephone.

Katy has been supporting clients for over 12 years and is particularly experienced in working with bereavement, stress, worry, anxiety, relationships.
Katy has also published journals.

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