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Is Guilt Getting the Best of You?

Psychology experts give tips for easing the burden of groundless guilt.

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Does your guilty conscience follow your every move, making you wonder how you could have done something more or better -- for your partner, your kids, your community, or your career? Where does such crippling guilt come from? What toll does it take on you? And, most importantly, how can you shake it? Keep reading to find out. And don't feel too guilty about taking the time for yourself to do so.

Clearly, the spectrum of guilt that burdens folks runs the gamut. "Some people don't have the positive guilt that keeps you on the straight and narrow. Others have guilt that eats away at their soul; they rarely have a moment of peace," says Michael McKee, PhD, vice chairman of The Cleveland Clinic's psychiatry and psychology department.

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Why do some people let guilt tear them apart inside? Personality is partly to blame, say the experts.

"Timid, insecure individuals may be victims of excessive guilt and constant 'second guessing' of themselves and their actions," says Patricia Farrell, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of How to be Your Own Therapist, A Step-by-Step Guide to Building a Competent, Confident Life.

"People with an obsessive-compulsive or obsessive-personality disorder or with these traits in their personalities are also prone to excessive ruminating about their actions and driving up their guilt quotient," she adds.

Social Forces Behind Guilt

While personality can predispose people to guilt, social expectations play a part, too.

From an early age, both males and females receive strong signals about "gender-specific" expectations that, when not fulfilled, can provoke guilt.

"Women build self-esteem through relationships," explains Mary Ann Bauman, MD, director of Women's Health for INTEGRIS, a nonprofit health system in Oklahoma. She is also author of Fight Fatigue: Six Simple Steps to Maximize Your Energy. "As women, we have to make sure no one thinks we're being selfish," Bauman says.

The result? "It causes us to absolutely overextend ourselves," she tells WebMD.

Men and Guilt

Men, on the other hand, grow up with a different set of expectations. "Men learn to build self-esteem through their accomplishments," Bauman says. So a man who doesn't become the athlete or the scholar that he, or his parents, expected him to be is often plagued by guilt. That's particularly true for children who, even as adults, live to please their parents.

"I have patients who are students in college and want to major in x, y, or z but tell me, 'My father is a doctor and wants me to follow in his footsteps," says Kiki Weingarten, executive director of DailyLifeConsulting.com.

Parenthood also opens up opportunities for guilt. "It's not just working parents; it's parents across the board. I think they feel like they should be doing more. They're looking over their shoulders at their neighbors, thinking they're doing more," says Naomi Drew, a New Jersey-based parentingparenting expert and author.

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