Do you regularly experience guilt and shame? Does it prevent you from achieving your goals or enjoying life? Is it hard to get over a genuine mistake? Or do you feel these things when you haven’t really done anything wrong? Read on to find out how to stop living with shame and guilt, and start feeling good about yourself.

What is guilt?

Guilt is a feeling of regret and responsibility. It happens if you think you did or said something that broke a social rule or hurt someone when you didn’t mean to. The purpose of guilt is to stop you from doing the same thing again, which is useful. But it needs to be dealt with if it makes you very distressed, you feel it about things that you know rationally aren’t your fault, or you don’t dare tell anyone about a problem.

Why do we feel guilt and shame?

Humans are social creatures, and to help us get along we have rules about what is and isn’t acceptable when dealing with others. Guilt is the feeling we get when we break those rules. Either we have done something wrong or we have failed to do something right, like accidentally kicking a ball through someone’s window or not keeping a promise. These are everyday examples, but guilt is created by other things as well.

Healthy guilt is when what you feel is in proportion to the mistake you made and it can be productive. Everyone makes mistakes, but if you feel bad about it, it’s a sign you realise you want to do better. You can usually move on fairly easily, by apologising, doing what you can to fix the mistake (mend the window) and/or taking steps to ensure it won’t happen again, (keeping future promises). This kind of guilt is a problem if it’s out of proportion to the situation or goes on for longer than is reasonable.

Existential guilt is about unfairness in general rather than your own actions. Perhaps you feel that you are in a favoured position – having your health, a job, or a secure home when others don’t. This happens more than you’d think, since our successes often inconvenience others, even mildly. If you get a promotion at work, for example, it means that everyone else didn’t get it.

‘Survivor’s guilt’ can be related to this and is what you experience when you avoid something bad that happened to other people. It applies to varying circumstances, from surviving natural disasters to keeping a job during layoffs.

The difference between shame and guilt

Shame is what we tend to call free-floating guilt, not attached to any specific action or event. Instead, it comes from a feeling that something is wrong with who you are; that somehow you are not as worthy, kind, knowledgeable, or competent as others seem to think. It can arise from a childhood where you did not feel valued, or mental health issues like low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, or Imposter Syndrome.

How to deal with guilt and shame

  • Treat yourself with the same respect, compassion and kindness you use with others. Practising positive self-talk and using affirmations will help with this.
  • Avoid using alcohol, overeating and other unhealthy habits to mask how you’re feeling.
  • Discuss the problem with the people who are affected by whatever is causing your guilt, if you can. Apologise and try to make amends if that’s appropriate.
  • If you feel strongly about social inequalities, try volunteering for or donating to relevant causes, encouraging others to do so. But don’t put too much pressure on yourself. You can’t solve every problem in the world on your own.
  • Separate who you are from what you do. Remind yourself that we can – and do – all make mistakes.
  • Seek a sense of connection with other people; reach out to family, friends, or your community. Research shows this is one of the best ways to overcome shame.

Always remember that everyone does the best they can with the knowledge they have and the choices they can see. If a decision you made wasn’t correct, don’t fret too much; learn from it and grow.

And if you struggle to do this, please contact me, I would be very happy to help.

Author: Debbie Waller is a professional therapist, specialising in stress, anxiety and related issues, including gut-directed hypnotherapy to help with the symptoms of IBS. She also offers EMDR/Blast which is used for trauma, PTSD, phobias and OCD. For more information on any of these services, phone 01977 678593. 

Researcher: Rae Waller is an experienced researcher and writer with a special interest in mental health issues. Rae offers drafting, fact-checking, proofreading, and editing for anything from a leaflet to a website, a blog or a book, and can also provide diversity reading, especially for LGBTQ+ and autism-related issues. Please contact for further information.