How To Process Guilt

How To Process Guilt

Many emotions can hinder our mental health, but none act quite like guilt or shame. Guilt is a unique emotion that can propel us to do good or hold us back from moving forward and reaching our potential. If used correctly, we can be the true best version of ourselves; if not, we can become hindered by toxic shame. Read on to learn more about what guilt is, its relationship to shame, and how you can process your guilt and move forward with your life. 

What Is Guilt?

Guilt is a painful emotion that occurs when we have made a mistake or compromised our morals in some way. It is our indicator that we have acted in a way that goes against our internal code of conduct. It usually comes after breaking the law, accidentally hurting someone in some way, or going against our spiritual or religious beliefs. Though painful, the emotion of guilt is neutral as it can be used for both good or to hurt others. 

Sources Of Guilt

Guilt comes from a variety of sources. Sometimes we simply make a mistake and feel guilty about it. In most cases, this is healthy, as this feeling of guilt encourages us to make better decisions or take better actions in the future. 

But some guilt comes from external sources and is not necessarily healthy. For example, if you made a mistake as a child, your parents may scold or punish you in a way that creates a more permanent feeling of guilt. Though it would have been healthy to feel some guilt so that you learn to act better, the added criticism and punishment heighten this feeling into something that becomes more painful and toxic. 

Furthermore, society, religions, or certain groups may make a person feel guilty for acts or behaviors that they have no reason to feel guilty for. This creates irrational guilt that may follow the person for their entire life. Furthermore, it can develop into toxic shame, which can be detrimental to the person’s mental health. 

The Difference Between Guilt And Shame

Guilt and shame are used interchangeably but have slightly different definitions. Guild is defined as feeling bad about your actions. Shame is when you feel like a bad person because of your actions. Guilt focuses on the behavior; shame focuses on the self.

Let’s use the example of running a red light. You weren’t paying attention and ran through a light just as it turned red. As a result, you almost caused an accident, but luckily the other drivers reacted in time. 

If you feel guilty, then you recognize you did something wrong and make efforts to drive more mindful in the future. If you felt shame, you would tell yourself that you are a bad person who never drives well. You would probably proceed to beat yourself up internally instead of making any efforts to avoid the mistake in the future. 

Ways To Process Guilt

Guilt can be a painful emotion if we hold onto it for a long time. Without realizing it, we can easily allow guilt to turn into shame, which can have even more detrimental effects on our mental health. Therefore, it is important to acknowledge and process guilt as soon as possible. Here are some ways to help you process your guilt

Apologize and Make Amends

Once you realize you did something wrong, you need to fix the situation. Sometimes this requires an apology. Other times, you may need to take some action to reverse or fix the situation. 

Not making amends can keep unnecessary tension between you and the other people involved. It’s not enough to feel sorry for what you have done; you need to take the uncomfortable step of informing them of your guilt. 

Some people don’t apologize because they think it makes them look weak. However, apologizing and making amends make you strong because you are willing to repair the trust that you broke.  

Learn From Your Mistakes

If you don’t learn from your mistakes, you are doomed to repeat them. It’s not enough to feel sorry for what you have done; you must make sure you don’t make the mistake again. 

Think about how you acted in the situation. What caused you to make the mistake or act in a way that you regret? Once you understand the causes of your guilt, you can take appropriate action to avoid your mistakes in the future. 

Talk With Someone

Talking to others can help process any emotion, not just guilt. However, this certainly comes in handy with guilt as well as shame, especially if the situation cannot be amended or is unlikely to be repeated. This is especially helpful for those who feel guilty about their behavior against someone who has passed away or made more significant and life-changing mistakes. 

You can either talk with a trusted friend or loved one or with a professional. A counselor will listen to you with empathy and compassion and will help you find ways to process your guilt so that you can move forward. But even just having a trusted friend by your side can alleviate the pain and burden as well. 

Forgive Yourself

Most importantly, you must forgive yourself. We all make mistakes or take actions that we regret later. It is just a part of being human. Guilt is an important emotion that discourages us from making the same mistakes in the future, so it doesn’t mean that you are a bad person. It is an advantageous emotion that pushes us to be better versions of ourselves. 

However, it can be a toxic emotion if not processed. You won’t be able to process your guilt without forgiving yourself. Remind yourself that you were doing the best you could at the time and have confidence that you will take better actions in the future. 


Marie Miguel has been a writing and research expert for nearly a decade, covering a variety of health-related topics. Currently, she is contributing to the expansion and growth of a free online mental health resource with BetterHelp.com. With an interest and dedication to addressing stigmas associated with mental health, she continues to specifically target subjects related to anxiety and depression.

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