Is Guilt Getting the Best of You?

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

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
5 min read

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.

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.

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, 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 they, or their parents, expected them 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

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.

Even as we face our twilight years, the tendency toward guilt can remain strong.

Take, for instance, parents who enter a nursing home. "They often feel very guilty about the cost of it, knowing they have to sell everything to pay for the cost of the nursing home instead of passing it on to their children," says Barbara Ensor, PhD, a psychologist with Stella Maris, a long-term care facility in Baltimore.

Meanwhile, the children of these parents often suffer from guilt too. "Many family members feel guilty that they've had to put their mother in a nursing home, and that they can't provide for her," says Ensor.

The crushing sense of guilt that so many of us feel isn't just bad for the psyche; it's bad for our health.

"If you're guilty, you're probably getting stressed. If your body releases stressstress chemicals, it puts you at risk for minor stuff like headaches and backaches," McKee tells WebMD. And that's not all."It [guilt] also contributes to cardiovascular disease and gastrointestinal disorders. It can even have a negative impact on the immune system over time," McKee says.

Guilt also takes a toll on an already fragile mental state. "It contributes significantly to depressiondepression, as it is very often involves a negative view of self, and to anxiety," McKee explains.

If you feel guilty as an adult, chances are the bad feelings have been building since childhood, so it may take some time to unravel all the suffocating layers of the stuff. But it can be done. Here's how.

Practice saying no. "There will be discomfort, as with any change," Weingarten says. But it can and should be done, particularly if you're constantly putting yourself last.

But what if you're having trouble saying no? "Ask yourself why you fear saying 'no,'" Weingarten says. "Are you afraid you won't be popular? That people will talk behind your back?" That should help you put your fear in perspective.

Remember to take care of yourself. "Ask yourself 'What is good enough? How can I handle all these responsibilities and not fall apart?' Because when you fall apart, you're not good for anybody," Weingarten tells WebMD. "You simply have to take care of yourself."

Change your behavior by starting with small steps. "When you first say 'no,' you will still have insecurities about it. After you build a portfolio of successes, it gets easier," Bauman says.

Re-evaluate your expectations. "Assess your accomplishments, or lack thereof, and ask yourself if they're the right ones for you," Bauman suggests. "Sometimes, we are moved to do things because it was right for our parents. But your parents' situation was not your own," she reminds us.

"Identify where that guilty voice comes from," McKee suggests. "If it's your mother's or your fathers', I ask people to let go of it," he says.

"Keep things in perspective," urges Natalie Gahrmann, a life coach and founder of N-R-G Coaching Associates. For instance, if you're trying to get to a meeting on time and feel terribly guilty about showing up a few minutes late, consider the alternative: you speed and get a ticket, or cause an accident. Being a little late is not unforgivable.

Stop feeling guilty about making mistakes. "View mistakes as a learning experience, not because you're a sinful, slothful person," McKee says.