An article that will assist you in identifying when you are feeling guilty.  Also considers the three types of guilt we feel, conscience driven, pressure driven or manipulated guilt.  Solutions to enable a release of guilt are offered here.
The way we judge our own behaviour can be damaging, particularly if we are inclined to condemn ourselves, and carrying excessive guilt or feeling guilty frequently can leave us feeling exhausted.  We may also become increasingly blaming and negative towards ourselves, resulting in a negative impact on our levels of self-esteem. 

To tackle guilt and all the negative side effects it can bring, we first need to recognize when we feel guilty:

  •   We feel our sense of worth diminishing when we think of something we have done or have failed to do
  •   We find ourselves needing to justify our behaviour.
  •   We feel overly defensive about our behaviour.
  •   When we remember something we have done it feels painful.

Next we need to determine if our guilt is genuinely ours and derives from our sense of conscience, or if it is based on someone else’s values and judgments.



 We may feel a natural and nurturing conscience driven guilt when we judge our own behaviour as being at odds with our own values and standards.  We feel a lack of integrity and want very much to change the situation.  For example we may not voice our opinion on a matter that is important to us, or we forget a good friends Birthday, as we are preoccupied.

 Pressured guilt is more based in fear than a conscience driven need to change our behaviour, and we often have a vague sense of feeling manipulated or having been placed in an unjustified situation.  We may be afraid of a loved one discovering what we have done and experiencing their rejection or criticism of us.  In this situation we don’t truly believe that our actions were wrong.  Here, we might feel guilty for having sex before marriage for example, as our parents are Catholic and would be horrified to find out what we were doing.  We however, do not believe that sex before marriage is truly wrong and so do not feel true conscious driven guilt, we don’t truly believe we should change our behaviour.  

 To determine if a behaviour is at odds with our own values say the following sentences out loud, adding in the behaviour you feel guilty about:

 1.      I feel guilty about ……………….. and I want to change it.

2.      I don’t truly think ……………. is wrong but I am scared that my parents / a loved one / an authority figure might find out about what I have done / am doing and disapprove of my actions.

 Does one sentence feel more congruent (feel true to yourself) when you say it?  If the first sentence feels more congruent to say then look at the solutions to feeling conscience driven guilt.  If sentence two feels more congruent to you then look at solutions to pressure driven guilt.



 When we are experiencing pressured guilt we simply need to respect our own beliefs and judgments over and above the judgments and beliefs of others around us.  We need the courage to stand by our own beliefs even if they challenge our loved ones or authority figures.  This may be easier said than done, but once you give yourself permission to follow your own instincts and begin to practice being assertive in this area it will get easier and easier, as you build a growing sense of strength within yourself. 

Release the idea that another’s approval is necessary to your own self-respect and begin to live an authentic life where you live by your own judgment.  On this path you might have to stand up to a loved one and it can be a scary and lonely process at times.  As one client recounted to me ‘It’s almost as if my family are working against me in my life, I feel as if I am constantly battling with them simply to be happy and to fulfill my own genuine needs and wants’.  When we sense that the people closest to us dislike us when we are living according to our own truth, liking ourselves may at times seem almost impossible, but true self-respect can be gained only through breaking this barrier. 


If your internal dialogue continues to berate you in the area of pressured guilt you might like to take a look at my article on dealing with internal dialogue



When we do feel genuine conscience driven guilt is important that we handle the situation so as to protect our self-esteem.  If we continue to blame and berate ourselves our self-respect will diminish and that will lead us into more negative behaviour patterns.  When experiencing conscience driven guilt, we can lessen and eliminate the guilty feelings we are holding onto by applying the situation to the principles below:



  • STANDARDS:  By whose standards do you evaluate your behaviour, yours or someone else’s?  What do you truly believe about the issue? 
  • CONTEXT:  Consider the circumstances surrounding your behaviour.  Were there any other options available to you at the time?  Can you understand why you behaved the way you did in the particular context you were in
  • RESPONSIBILITY:   Are you taking on unfair or excessive responsibility in the area?  For example, are you feeling guilty because someone has been offended by your behaviour even though you do not think you behaved badly?  Do you often take responsibility for how others feel, but do not expect others to take responsibility for how you feel, e.g. if you are being unfairly blamed?  If you find yourself in this category then take a look at my article on MASTERING EMOTIONS for an understanding of why each person is responsible for their own feelings. 
  • PERSPECTIVE:  Imagine that someone you love had behaved in the way you did, towards you, would you expect them to continue to feel guilty?  What if they had apologized and made amends as far as they could?  Taking the perspective of another person enables us to look at ourselves with more compassion, and it will be much easier for you to let go of the feelings of guilt.  Continuing to feel guilty helps nobody it simply turns you into a martyr and prevents you from exploring all the good and positive behaviours you could achieve in the future.
  • ACTION:   If you regret an action that you took, do you keep going over and over the situation in your head yet find yourself repeating the same inappropriate patterns of behaviour?  Or do you learn from the negative results a behaviour produced and make changes?  Mistakes can be our friends when we learn from them and make a more positive future for ourselves and others. 
  • AMENDS:  Have you made amends for your behaviour as far as you can?  Start by admitting the behaviour to yourself and examine the situation using the categories above.  Make your apologies to anyone that has been affected and do all you can to rectify the situation e.g. buy someone a late birthday gift if you have forgotten their birthday.  Now choose to behave differently in future e.g. ensure you remember their birthday the next year.



We may also have been brought up in a guilt fuelling home, where guilt has been used to manipulate us into behaving in certain ways in order to satisfy the wants and needs of another person.  Needs and wants are rarely directly communicated in this type of home, we learn to suggest rather than ask for what we want, and we look to others to feel ‘bad’ when they have failed to keep up with our wants and needs, even though we have never stated them explicitly.  This type of manipulation is evident in phrases such as ‘if you loved me you would ………… know how I feel, know what I wanted you to do etc’.  This type of guilt fuelling is highly damaging to self-esteem.  However, because of the intensity of the relationships involved in this situation it can be difficult to identify the game that is being played, and so self blame and a sense of being wrong, bad or inadequate is commonly the result for those at the end of the manipulation. 

Apply the following tests to determine if you experience manipulated guilt:

 If I take responsibility for an action and apologize to a person who has experienced hurt through my actions I

 1.      Feel incongruent (as if my apology sticks in my throat and I do not mean it on one level) or resentful as if I have been manipulated into apologizing.

2.      Feel relieved and experience a sense of pride in myself for taking responsibility for my actions.  The apology feels heartfelt and no resentment is present.

 If you answer yes to question one then you are probably at the end of manipulated guilt, apply the guilt freeing principles above and follow the advice for pressured guilt above.  If you answer yes to question two then follow the advice for conscience driven guilt above.



 A loved one insists on doing the washing-up but continuously moans whilst doing it and makes comments such as, I ALWAYS have to everything around here’.  Increasingly destructive is the next stage, of blame – the guilt inducer may say something like, ‘YOU NEVER do ANYTHING to help ME’.  The most damaging effects though come from the next stage, where the person who feels guilty might do the washing-up in an attempt to help out, in the hope that they will be seen as helpful and possibly receive some praise.  The guilt inducer however feels uncomfortable when receiving assistance, this is why they do not ask for help frequently in the first place. To regain a feeling of comfort they are driven to once again enter the guilt inducing game, and so they will criticize any attempt made to please them, e.g. they will say that the washing-up has not been done well enough and so they are going to have to do it all over again.  The criticism may indeed be accurate, but if the attempt at washing-up was poor, then a healthy response would be to assist the person who washed-up in redoing it all again so that they may learn to do a more efficient job in future.

Article © Sasha Phillips, 2008.