Written by Violaine Guéritault, Ph.D.

What is it?

Guilt is a powerful emotion experienced by all of us at one point or another. It’s often associated with a sense of responsibility and remorse when you are convinced that you caused harm either through your actions, your thoughts, or your spoken words. This emotion makes you feel like you’ve fallen short of some standard you wish you lived up to.

Although guilt is mostly regarded as being a negative emotion, it can also be seen in a more positive light.  It can motivate you to learn from painful experiences and change your behavior. However, it’s important to stay vigilant and aware of what’s going on so you don’t let guilt bring you down or impede your progress by paralyzing you. Once again, awareness is the key to finding that balance.

What is it telling you?

Well managed, the emotion of guilt is telling you that you did something wrong or hurtful and that you need to do something to make amends and repair a relationship that matters to you. It’s an invitation to grow as a person. On the other hand, if poorly handled, guilt will only cause you to feel badly about yourself for reasons that are not always legitimate.

How to manage it?
  • Develop your awareness through the practice of mindfulness. It will help you put a name on your feelings and figure out whether your guilt is appropriate, and if it is, what purpose it serves.
  • Take responsibility for your actions and apologize right away in an unconditional manner. Don’t try to shift blame onto other people. Being able to say, “I’m sorry,” takes courage and shows strength of character.
  • Accept that you did something wrong, forgive yourself, learn from your mistakes, and move on. Don’t dwell on the past.
  • Change your behavior and remember that guilt can strengthen your resilience, help you grow, and build your confidence that you’ll make better choices in the future.