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Written By: DiveThru Team

Reviewed By: Natalie Asayag MSW, LCSW


Feeling Guilty: A Guide to Your Emotions

PUBLISHED Dec 23rd, 2020 & UPDATED ON Jan 26th, 2023

Feeling guilty is one of the most draining, soul-crushing emotions to experience, which is probably why it’s rooted in the ‘sad’ core feeling. Guilt can be a typical response to our mistakes or bad choices that hurt other people or affect them in negative ways. It’s an emotion that gnaws at our conscience and it’s. the. worst. It feels like a knot in your stomach or a lump in your throat that you can’t swallow. The cause of your guilt keeps playing in your mind over and over again obsessively, which only makes us feel 1000x worse. Why did I do that? Why did I say that? What is wrong with me?! I’m such a bad person… 

But, we’re only human. Humans make mistakes or poor choices sometimes! When we mess up, it’s typical for us to be hard on ourselves. Guilt can have a lot of power over us if we let it. But we’re here to help you work through your feelings of guilt so you can move on. Because you DO deserve to be happy! No room for baggage here.

A Deeper Look at Feeling Guilty

What does it really mean to feel guilty? APA Dictionary of Psychology defines guilt (n.) as “a self-conscious emotion characterized by a painful appraisal of having done (or thought) something that is wrong, often [characterized] by a readiness to take action designed to undo or mitigate this wrong.” So yeah, guilt is that pit-in-your-stomach feeling you get when you have done something that you know is wrong. It sucks, right?

There’s lot of reasons you might feel guilty. Maybe you got into an argument with your best friend and you made a comment that was super uncalled for and hurt their feelings. You regretted it the second you said it, but too late; the damage was done. Or maybe you promised your boss you would meet an important deadline, but you fell behind and couldn’t follow through on that promise. You let them down, and you feel like shit for your poor performance. Or it could be that you’ve broken up with someone who was a really great person, but you just didn’t see a future with them. And seeing their hurt and confusion makes you feel like such a bad person for not loving them back the way they deserve. Other common causes of guilt can include surviving trauma or disaster that others did not, also known as survivor guilt.

To get more specific, here’s three common types of guilt that you might experience:

1. Reactive Guilt

This type of guilt stems from you thinking that you’ve done something that goes against your beliefs or morals, or what you see as acceptable society standards. For example: backing into someone’s car in a parking lot and not leaving a note. Not only is that illegal (don’t hit and run, fam) but you would most likely feel a ton of guilt for damaging someone’s property and not leaving your information to help cover the cost.

2. Anticipatory Guilt

When you think about doing something that goes against your moral standards, or what’s seen as acceptable behaviour by society, that’s anticipatory guilt. Maybe your cousin has asked you to be a part of their wedding party, which usually takes a lot of time and money to participate including parties, fittings and so on. You think about making an excuse to not attend, which would involve lying. You don’t actually go through with it, but the fact that you considered lying to your cousin to get out of their big day makes you feel like a certified piece of shit.

3. Existential Guilt

This form of guilt is a ‘lil bit more complex than the rest. Basically, it has to do with your feeling of injustice and how unfair life can be. It can also stem from the feeling you might have if you believe that you’ve made a negative impact on the lives of others. Maybe you harbor a ton of guilt because one of your parents gave up their career to raise you, or if your parents didn’t want another child when they had you. If you care deeply about the environment, you might also experience guilt for your carbon footprint, even though you do your best to reduce waste and be mindful about your lifestyle. 

How Feeling Guilty Shows Up Mentally

Guilt can consume your thoughts and really begin to affect your wellbeing. It feels like a nagging little voice in your head that makes your heart feel like it’s breaking. It’s a hard emotion to wrap your mind around and work through because it’s not one that just goes away. Even if you are able to put it in the back of your mind, it still sometimes shoves its way to the front like an annoying person at a concert. 

Sometimes we have other emotions that come along with guilt like sadness and shame. But there are other ways that it can pop up as well. Here are a few ways guilt can intrude on your mental health:

– Deep regret

– Self-doubt

– Low self-esteem

– Isolating from others

– Feeling inadequate or shame

It’s not easy to feel this way. We’ve totally been there! You might be experiencing some really hard stuff like self doubt and regret, but this feeling won’t last forever. 

How Feeling Guilty Shows Up Physically

Feeling guilty can also show in physical ways, too. It’s not just an emotion that lives in your head. Even though you might think that you’re capable of keeping it in your brain, your body will inevitably react to how you’re feeling. 

Like we said, guilt can come along with other emotions (like a mean group of friends that manages to make you feel like shit). While guilt might make you feel like there’s a pit in your stomach and a pain in your chest, its nasty friends make you feel a certain way too. Here’s a few not-so-fun signs you might notice if you’re experiencing guilt:

  • Tearfulness
  • Difficulty sleeping or insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Stomach pain
  • Digestive problems
  • Muscle tension

Now that you know some of the physical things that come along with guilt (like muscle tension) it coullllld be a really nice reason to treat yourself to a lovely massage. Just sayin’!

5 Ways to Cope with Feeling Guilty

When you’re feeling guilty, it can be hard to pull yourself out of this feeling. Guilt can manage to stick with you for yearsssss. How rude! Like we said, it’s that annoying person that manages to push their way to the front at a concert every now and again.  But don’t worry! We have some coping strategies for you that can really help. Sometimes, it just takes time for guilt to subside. But if you’re short on time and big on emotions, try these coping strategies instead:

1. Journal

Try writing out exactly how you’re feeling and what made you feel this way. Did you say something hurtful that you regret? Back out on a commitment you made last minute? Taking the time to journal our thoughts can give us the clarity we need to move forward and past the feelings of guilt!

2. Practice deep breathing

Try it with us: breathe innn… and breathe outtt. Taking a moment to focus on your breathing has actually been proven to lower anxiety and reduce stress. Plus, deep breathing slows your heart rate and provides your brain with enough oxygen to chill out a bit.

3. Reach out for support

Your guilt might cause you to push others away or isolate yourself. Remember, your friends and family are there for a reason! When you need to talk through how you’re feeling, lean on the people you trust. Sometimes just having someone to listen to us and validate how we’re feeling makes all the difference!

4. Engage in compassionate self talk

We can be really hard on ourselves when we feel guilty. Try saying positive things to yourself out loud: I feel guilty at this moment, but I know that I am a good person. I’m a human who makes mistakes sometimes. It’s important to treat yourself with kindness in order to work through this feeling.

5. Give yourself a pep talk

Guilt can really get you down. Try to utilize a helpful statement, like: I’m only human. I will get through this. It can serve as a reminder that what you’re feeling right now is valid and that you can move on.

There you have it! That’s all for now. We know how hard it can be to get over guilt, so don’t be so hard on yourself. And if your guilt is ever a result of you saying ‘no’ to people’s requests, check out our article on how to say no without feeling guilty! Hopefully, these tips will help you manage this emotion.

We’re rooting for you, always!


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