I Can’t Stop Feeling Guilty

I Can’t Stop Feeling Guilty

Guilt is something that seems to heavily influence a lot of our lives.  When you stop to think about feeling guilty it plays a hand in many of our thoughts.  Consider a few of these examples:

  • You feel guilty because it’s 2 weeks before the holidays and you really SHOULD be eating lean to balance out the massive amount of food you will be consuming over the next month.  Every time you overeat or have something sweet you feel guilty.
  • Along those same lines every time you skip a workout or a run or hitting the treadmill you feel guilty.
  • When you watch an extra episode of Stranger Things or Pretty Little Liars instead of cleaning the bathrooms you feel a little guilty.
  • The times you choose to watch a football game or grab a drink with your friends instead of doing something with your son you have a little tug on your heart string.
  • When your kid got sent to the principals office the first time it made you wonder about your qualifications as a parent, and maybe a little guilty you didn’t spend more time trying to team him some of those things you always think about.
  • Every time you open the door to your house and see the various messes piled about you wonder why you aren’t better at keeping a neat house.
  • When you are talking to your mom on the phone and she asks you about getting together soon or coming for a visit in the summer guess what that feeling is that seems to snake it’s way through you?  Yup, it’s called guilt.

Guilt is one of those emotions that seems to permeate into a lot of different aspects of peoples lives.  I didn’t even go down the all the guilt associated with religion because I am not experienced enough in that area to speak to it but I know it’s a big deal there.

Personally I lived with a lot of guilt over many different things for the majority of my life.  It’s only been in the last probably 4-5 years that guilt has had MUCH LESS of an impact as it used to.  I have friends who tell me fairly regularly “I can’t stop feeling guilty”.  Let me share a few reasons why I now feel that guilt is a wasted emotion.

Previous Choices And Actions

Look, we are all where we are at in this particular point in our lives because of the massive amount of choices we have made over the course of our lives.  Each decision leads to a specific outcome.  Every little decision you make during the day impacts your trajectory to some degree whether you think it does or not.  Every.  Single.  Thing.  And many many people get caught up feeling guilty over and over again for an action they did in the past.  They simply keep beating themselves up over it time and time again.  Here’s a great quote from the book the 4 Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz that hit me like a ton of bricks.  While I don’t know if there’s actual scientific evidence to back it up it feels true intuitively:


“The human is the only animal on earth that pays a thousand times for the same mistake.  The rest of the animals pay only once for every mistake they make.  But not us.  We have a powerful memory.  We make a mistake, we judge ourselves, we find ourselves guilty, and we punish ourselves.”

Wow right??  And it feels true.  How often do you do something that makes you feel guilty not only when you do it but time and time again?  I don’t know about you but there was a time when I would beat myself up for months and even occasionally years over something I did or didn’t do.  Not a lot of things but certainly when I was in certain situations that would remind of a time when I did something I didn’t feel good about and that good old emotion guilt would rear its ugly head.

Humans are Fallable – its what makes us human

I have spent a fair amount of energy teaching my daughters that its okay to mistakes.  That everybody makes mistakes all time, myself included.  Heck, probably a lot more than my fair share.  And that’s okay because making mistakes is one of the primary ways we learn.  When we make mistakes if we are smart it gives us the opportunity to learn from it.  It’s okay to make a mistake, just be smart enough to learn from it and grow from there.

My youngest daughter provided an excellent example of this over the summer.  She was with a group of her friends from her volleyball team at an amusement park in the evening.  Her friends went into a store to get something to drink.  My daughter decided she didn’t want to wait in line to pay for the 99 cent piece of candy she wanted so she just took it.  5 minutes after they left the store the rent-a-cop busted her and took her to the park office where they then called my wife and I to come pick her up.  So all her friends know she got in trouble and had to get taken home by her parents.  Not great for a 14 year old.

The following morning at breakfast she announced she was going to tell her volleyball coach the next day which was a Monday.  And she did.  I was incredibly proud of her for facing her mistake head on and owning up to it.  The school volleyball coach and the district administration was so impressed with her coming clean so quickly that the only punishment she received from the school was having to sit out one volleyball match.  Now she got a LOT more punishment at home but I tell you what, I will be shocked if she ever steals anything again.  She learned from her mistake.

Where it comes from

Since guilt is an emotion there is no one definitive reason for it.  From a cognitive point of view, guilt is an emotion that people will experience because they’re convinced they’ve caused harm. In cognitive theory, the thoughts cause the emotions. The guilt of emotion follows directly from the thought that you are responsible for someone else’s misfortune, whether or not this is the case. People who experience guilt on a chronic basis, according to the cognitive perspective, mistakenly suffer under the illusion that they have caused other people harm.

These are the 5 reasons that typically cause guilt:

  1. Guilt for something you actually did – This can be because you caused harm to someone or violated your own moral or ethical code such as lying or cheating.  In this case it’s appropriate to feel guilty when you have done something wrong
  2. Guilt for something you didn’t do but want to – You are thinking about doing something that breaks your moral or ethical code such as cheating or stealing.  Just thinking about violates your own standards can cause as much guilt as actually committing the act itself.
  3. Guilt for something you think you did – Much of the unhappiness we experience is due to  our own irrational thoughts about situations.  Also bear in mind that our own memory for past events is highly flawed so there’s a good chance we didn’t do something to the degree that we THINK we did.
  4. Guilt that you didn’t do enough to help someone – This will be when you want to do more for someone such as a person who is ill or sick but you aren’t able to do as much as you want because you have other obligations.
  5. Guilt that you are doing better than someone else – especially in the arena of being a survivor and others are not this is very relevant.  This can also come into play when you are doing “better” than someone you are close to like making a lot more money than your brother.

Give yourself a Break

The biggest thing we can do to stop feeling as much guilt is to give ourselves a break.  Remember that you, me, her, him and everyone are human therefore fallible.  Nobody is perfect so let yourself off the hook when you make a mistake.  I wouldn’t encourage you to try to make mistakes on purpose but remember that making mistakes is a key way we learn.  So use it as a tool to help you evolve as a person.  Here’s the way I approach it when I make a mistake and it’s worked very well for me.  First of all when I screw up, which I often do, I admit it.  I don’t try to hide it or lie and say I didn’t do it or whatever, I simply admit to it.  If it impacts someone else such as hurting someone’s feelings or breaking something of someone else’s I say I’m sorry.  And mean it.  Finally I make it right.  I make up for my mistake in some way whether it’s apologizing for a week to my wife for something I did or buying someone a new coffee mug because I busted the one they let me borrow.  So admit, apologize, and make it right.  Then I move on.  Simple as that.

Think of guilt as a (mostly) wasted emotion

So if you think about the reasons for why we feel guilty you can see that for the most part guilt is a wasted emotion.  If you actually do something wrong whether it’s something that breaks your own moral code or it’s something that hurts another person admit to it, say you’re sorry, and make it right.  But if you are feeling guilty over something you think you did or something you are thinking about doing give yourself a break and stop it.  Don’t waste your time and more importantly your emotional energy feeling guilty over something you are thinking about or something that might have happened.  That’s a recipe for beating yourself up for no good reason.

Thanks for listening.  As always I’d love to hear your thoughts so feel free to chime in!

All my best,

Mat A.

Mat A.

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  1. Hi there!

    Some good motivation here. Live can be overwhelming sometimes and reading such articles really help to get ourselves back together again.

    On the other side, some people don´t feel guilt at all what makes them horrible human beings I think.

    I enjoyed reading that and for everyone else: be easy on yourself and nice to each other – the world needs more love 🙂

    All the best to everyone out there.

    1. Hello Manny!  Thanks for sharing your thoughts, really appreciate it.  I agree with you that the world does need more love in general!  It’s always a good idea in my opinion to be easy on yourself, give yourself a break.  

  2. Hi Mat A.,
    A very compelling post about guilt. Do you think guilt affects men and women differently?

    Here is what I mean. Often, whether it makes sense or not, a man defines who he is by how financially successful he is. If he hasn’t achieved professional success or making big money at a certain stage of his life, he may feel guilty. And play that guilt over and over in his head. I haven’t heard of many women expressing this type of guilt.

    So, what are your thoughts on the different ways guilt effects men and women?

    1. Hi Thabo,

      Thanks for stopping by and appreciate your thoughts.  I do agree with you that men can feel guilty if they haven’t achieved a certain amount of financial success by a certain time in his life.  Many of the women I know feel guilty when they do things for themselves instead of doing something for their kids. Actually I have several that feel really guilty about doing anything of themselves.  Great thoughts!


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