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Handling Guilt

Chapter 4: Handling Guilt

Tools for Personal Growth

By: James J. Messina, Ph.D.


What is guilt?

Guilt is the:

  • Feeling of responsibility for negative circumstances that have befallen yourself or others.
  • Feeling of regret for your real or imagined misdeeds, both past and present.
  • Sense of remorse for thoughts, feelings, or attitudes that were or are negative, uncomplimentary, or nonaccepting concerning yourself or others.
  • Feeling of obligation for not pleasing, not helping, or not placating another.
  • Feeling of bewilderment and lack of balance for not responding to a situation in your typical, stereotype manner.
  • Feeling of loss and shame for not having done or said something to someone who is no longer available to you.
  • Accepting of responsibility for someone else's misfortune or problem because it bothers you to see that person suffer.
  • Motivator to amend all real or perceived wrongs.
  • Strong moral sense of right and wrong that inhibits you from choosing a "wrong" course of action; however, you assign your own definitions to the words.
  • Driving force or mask behind which irrational beliefs hide.

How do others play on your feelings of guilt?

People can and sometimes will:

  • Make you believe they will suffer greatly if you do not respond positively to their request(s).
  • Call on your guilt to respond to their requests, even when it means violating your rights.
  • Respond to your irrational self by reinforcing your irrational thinking, giving you a sense of blame, for past, present, or future actions.
  • Build up a verbal or imagined scenario that portrays you at fault for inaction, thus guaranteeing your sense of guilt and your willingness to do anything to alleviate it.
  • Accuse you of misdeeds, words, or actions to arouse your sense of guilt and make you believe you are the one with a problem in an interpersonal relationship difficulty. (This effectively takes the pressure off of them.)
  • Reinforce your negative self-perceptions, encouraging you to be guilt-ridden and self-judgmental for their benefit.
  • Build a case with moral absolutes to convince you of the "right way" to do things, avoiding that negative feeling of guilt for themselves.
  • Set up situations for you in which you will believe your alternatives are limited to that which results in the least sense of guilt.
  • Feign or fake hardship, illness, discomfort, unhappiness, incompetence, or other negative behavior to arouse your sense of guilt and have you take over those tasks, or duties bringing imagined negative consequences for them.
  • Threaten negative consequences, like going to jail, to the hospital, to the juvenile detention center, failing school, dying, or divorcing you. This manipulation uses your guilt to benefit them.

What can guilt do to you?

Guilt can:

  • Make you become over-responsible, striving to make life “right" You overwork. You over-give of yourself. You are willing to do anything in your attempt to make everyone happy.
  • Make you over-conscientious. You fret over every action you take as to its possible negative consequence to others, even if this means that you must ignore your needs and wants.
  • Make you over-sensitive. You see decisions about right and wrong in every aspect of your life and become obsessed with the tenuous nature of all of your personal actions, words, and decisions. You are sensitive to the cues of others where any implication of your wrong-doing is intimated.
  • Immobilize you. You can become so overcome by the fear of doing, acting, saying, or being “wrong" that you eventually collapse, give in, and choose inactivity, silence, and the status quo.
  • Interfere in your decision making. It is so important to always be “right” in your decisions that you become unable to make a decision lest it be a wrong one.
  • Be hidden by the mask of self-denial. Because it is less guilt-inducing to take care of others first, instead of yourself, you hide behind the mask of self-denial. You honestly believe it is better to serve others first, unaware that “guilt” is the motivator for such “generous” behavior.
  • Make you ignore the full array of emotions and feelings available to you. Overcome by guilt or the fear of it, you can become emotionally blocked or closed off. You are able neither to enjoy the positive fruits of life nor experience the negative aspects.
  • Be a motivator to change. Because you feel guilt and the discomfort it brings, you can use it as a barometer of the need to change things in your life and rid yourself of the guilt.
  • Be a mask for negative self-belief. You may actually have low self-esteem, but claim the reason for your negativity is the overwhelming sense of guilt you experience.
  • Mislead or misdirect you. Because many irrational beliefs lie behind guilt, you may be unable to sort out your feelings. It is important to be objective with yourself when you are experiencing guilt; be sure that your decisions are based on sound, rational thinking.

What irrational beliefs or negative self-scripts are involved in guilt?

  • I do not deserve to be happy.
  • I am responsible for my family's (spouse's) happiness.
  • There is only one "right" way to do things.
  • It's bad to feel hurt and pain.
  • My children should never suffer in their childhood like I did in mine.
  • My kids should have more material things than I did.
  • It is my fault if others in my life are not happy.
  • If my kids fail in any way, it's my responsibility.
  • It is wrong to be concerned about myself.
  • People are constantly judging me, and their judgment is important to me.
  • It is important to save face with others.
  • It is wrong to accept the negative aspects of my life without believing that I am responsible for them myself.
  • I am responsible if either positive or negative events happen to the members of my family.
  • I must not enjoy myself during a time when others expect me to be in mourning, grief, or loss.
  • You must never let down your guard; something you're doing could be evil or wrong.
  • I must always be responsible, conscientious, and giving to others.
  • How others perceive me is important as to how I perceive myself.
  • No matter what I do, I am always wrong.
  • I should never feel guilt.
  • If you feel guilt, then you must be or have been wrong.
Suggested steps to overcome guilt:


Step 1:  You can recognize the role guilt is playing in your life by choosing a current problem and answering the following questions in your journal:
  • What problem is currently troubling me?
  • Who is responsible for the problem?
  • Whose problem is it, really?
  • What did I do to make this problem worse for myself?
  • How much guilt do I feel about this problem?
  • How much does the guilt I experience exaggerate or exacerbate my problem?
  • If I felt no more guilt what would my problem look like then?
If the answer to the last question is that your problem can be solved by reducing guilt, go to Step 2.


Step 2:  Redefine your problem with the absence of guilt as an issue.
In answering the questions in Step 1 you recognized that guilt was preventing resolution of the problem. To redefining your problem, answer the following questions in your journal:
  • How insurmountable is the problem?
  • Is this problem an interpersonal or intrapersonal problem?
  • (1) If it is interpersonal: Can I help the other person and myself to set aside guilt and resolve this problem?                                               
  • (2) If it is intrapersonal: Can I set aside guilt or the fear of it and resolve this problem?
  • Does this problem have more than one solution? Can others and myself experience satisfaction, comfort, and resolution with a minimum of debilitating guilt?
  • Whose problem is it, really?
  • (1) Is it my problem or another(s)?
  • (2) Am I taking on another's responsibility? 
  • (3) Am I trying to keep another from experiencing pain, hardship, or discomfort?


Step 3:  If the problem is really someone else's, give the problem back to the person(s) to solve and to deal with.
If the problem is yours, go to Step 4.


Step 4:  You must confront the real or imagined guilt or fear of guilt preventing you from either handing the problem back to the person(s) whose problem it really is (Step 3) or from handling the problem on your own.

Consider the following:
  • What fears are blocking me at this moment from taking the steps I need to resolve this problem?
  • What are the irrational beliefs behind these fears?
  • Refute the irrational beliefs using the steps given in the “Handling Irrational Beliefs” section, Chapter two in Tools for Personal Growth, a Tools for Coping Series book.
  • Initiate a program of self-affirmation as presented in the”Self-affirmations” section, Chapter 3. Use an imagery scenario with “guilt” as an object you packaged in a nice box. It is brought to a mountain top and thrown off a cliff for good.
  • Affirm for yourself that: You deserve to solve this problem. You deserve to be good to yourself, and you deserve to have others be good to you, too!


Step 5:  If your guilt is not resolved after completing Steps 3 and/or 4, return to Step 1 and begin again.