Resolving Guilt Once and For All, Time After Time

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Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D. is a seasoned clinician with experience working with adults, couples, families, adolescents and older children since 1976. His aim ...Read More

Guilt, from a psychological perspective, is an emotional experience that occurs when a person believes or realizes that they have compromised their own standards of conduct or violated a moral standard, leading to a state of internal conflict. It’s fundamentally tied to the concept of responsibility and remorse for actions perceived as wrong or harmful. This emotion can serve a functional role in guiding behavior, encouraging individuals to rectify mistakes, and maintain social harmony by adhering to societal norms and personal values.

Distinguishing guilt from shame is crucial in understanding their impact on mental health. While guilt is associated with a specific action or behavior, acknowledging “I did something bad,” shame is more pervasive, affecting the individual’s sense of self with the crushing verdict of “I am bad.” This differentiation highlights guilt’s potential for positive change, as it focuses on actions rather than condemning the individual’s core identity.


The experience of guilt is nearly universal, a testament to its deep roots in human psychology and social functioning. It arises in various contexts, from minor transgressions to significant moral failures, reflecting its role in the complex web of human interactions and internal moral compass. Recognizing and addressing guilt constructively is vital for personal growth and maintaining healthy relationships, emphasizing the importance of understanding its psychological underpinnings and societal implications.

Recognizing Guilt Symptoms

Guilt manifests in various physical and emotional symptoms that can significantly affect an individual’s well-being. Recognizing these signs is the first step toward addressing and resolving the underlying issues. Common symptoms include:

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Physical Signs:

  • Insomnia or disturbed sleep patterns
  • Changes in appetite, either increased or decreased
  • Stomachaches, headaches, or other physical discomforts without a clear medical cause
  • Nervous behaviors, such as fidgeting, pacing, or a noticeable increase in restlessness

Emotional Signs:

  • Persistent feelings of sadness or a sense of emptiness
  • Increased irritability or anger over minor issues
  • Anxiety or excessive worry about past actions
  • Feelings of worthlessness or excessive self-blame
  • Withdrawal from social activities or disinterest in previously enjoyable tasks

Guilt can also have a profound impact on an individual’s behavior and decision-making processes. It can lead to avoidance behaviors, where the person shuns situations or people associated with the guilt-inducing event. Alternatively, it might result in overcompensation, where the individual goes to great lengths to make amends, sometimes in ways that are disproportionate to the mistake. Guilt can hinder one’s ability to make clear, rational decisions due to the overwhelming desire to rectify a wrong, leading to choices that prioritize short-term relief over long-term benefits.

Understanding these symptoms and their effects can empower individuals to seek appropriate support and strategies to address guilt, fostering healthier coping mechanisms and decision-making abilities.

Short-term vs. Long-term Guilt

Guilt can manifest in various durations and intensities, each with its own set of characteristics and impacts on individuals. Understanding the difference between short-term (acute) and long-term (chronic) guilt is crucial for addressing and resolving these feelings effectively.

Characteristics of Short-term (Acute) Guilt:

  • Immediate Response: Acute guilt often arises immediately after an action or decision that conflicts with one’s moral or ethical standards.
  • Specific Trigger: This type of guilt is usually linked to a specific event, making it easier to identify and address.
  • High Intensity: The emotional response is intense but typically short-lived as the individual takes steps to rectify the situation.
  • Motivational Aspect: Short-term guilt can serve as a motivator for change, prompting individuals to apologize, make amends, or alter their behavior to avoid future guilt.
  • Chronic guilt persists over a longer period, often without a clear resolution or pathway to forgiveness.
  • Generalized Feelings: This guilt may not be linked to a single event but rather a series of actions or a pervasive sense of having failed to meet personal or societal standards.
  • Lower Intensity, but Continuous: The intensity might be less acute than short-term guilt, but its persistent nature can lead to chronic stress, anxiety, and depression.
  • Impact on Self-Image: Long-term guilt can significantly affect an individual’s self-esteem and self-worth, leading to a more pervasive negative view of oneself.

While both types of guilt can impact mental health, chronic guilt is more likely to lead to long-term psychological issues such as anxiety disorders and depression.

Acute guilt often leads to immediate, corrective actions, whereas chronic guilt may result in long-term behavioral patterns aimed at self-punishment or avoidance.

Short-term guilt, when resolved, can strengthen relationships through the acknowledgment of mistakes and making amends. In contrast, long-term guilt can strain or damage relationships over time, especially if the guilt is internalized and not openly addressed.

Resolving Guilt

What is to be done if, after checking with reality, you or someone else actually did something wrong and caused harm, and now bear existential guilt? A straightforward approach to dissolve and make peace with guilt, and thereby complete the experience, can be enormously valuable both to get back to being on good terms with yourself and return to being on fine terms in your relationships. This helps heal injuries to one’s integrity, trustworthiness, honesty, and relationships. Here are five essential steps with two optional steps to fully accomplish just this:

  1. Recognition: First, wake up, notice, and observe your actions when harm or mistakes occur. See for yourself whether your actions, including words, attitude and body language, are associated with resulting difficulties. Ask, “Is this action of mine wrong like murder?” and “Did my actions directly cause or indirectly influence some harm, injury and violation occurring to another?” If either question is answered in the affirmative, then you have recognized harm you were a part of. This step is the important one of recognition or awareness. Without this necessary step, nothing follows. Say, “I recognize / see / acknowledge this harm.”
  2. Responsibility: Publically state your personal responsibility in the matter when harm resulted from or was influenced by an action of yours. Do verbalize your responsibility and ownership directly to the person or persons so harmed; say, “I did this; I own this; I am responsible for this.” This is a good spot to linger, look the other person in the eye, and slowly, sincerely and repeatedly say what you did and own the responsibility for what you did.
  3. Commitment: Give a two-sided commitment and your word of honor to not repeat this harmful act, and commit to perform good, responsible actions from this point forward; say, “I commit and give you my word that this harm will not happen again; instead I promise only to perform these good, responsible actions of… from here on out.” Usually this critical step is not done at all. People receiving such a powerful two-sided commitment often are thrilled.
  4. Repair: Verbally ask what you need to do to repair the harm and make it right again; say, “I want to make this right with you; what can I do now to make this right with you so it is fully behind us?” Often simply stating what you have is sufficient. If there was some material loss, this loss may be asked for to complete the harmful episode and have it be behind you both. Sometimes doing a service to the harmed person or the community in some way may be fitting. After all is sincerely said, the person who enacted the harm can ask the person so harmed whether they are satisfied. Usually this is the case.
  5. Release: With repair complete in the eyes of the one harmed, this episode is now done; say, “Is this now over and complete for you? If so, then great! We both can completely let this go starting immediately.” There may be some people who unfortunately are skilled at carrying grudges and will never let the incident go and be done with. This is relatively uncommon in my experience, thank goodness. Whenever this happens, it is fitting to inform the grudge holder that the incident is over and done with for you; say “Well, it’s over and done for me, and you can continue to hold onto it if you wish.” Importantly, so long as the harmful behavior, including addictive patterns, is not reenacted, it is ‘off limits’ to bring up, even in the heat of an argument. The completion and closure of this incident practically means the behavior cannot be brought up in conversation, unless the harmful actions are repeated. When the person has been true to their word in action and the other party wants to drag up this specific old issue that has not been acted out again, doing this is can be called playing “low ball” and reflects poorly on the person doing it. In fact, now it is up to them to clean this misstep up! Of course, when the injuring party does go back to acting out the harmful behavior, it is fitting and appropriate now to look at it in the context of a past history of doing these actions.

Some people that bring a background in religious or moral training may want the person who did harm to say they how badly they felt over what they did, the harmful consequences, the pains inflicted, and offer regret for doing it. If you can honestly say this, that’s fine. You may find it more fitting to say you did not feel good about what you did, a more positive shift in tone. The injured party may think an apology and asking for forgiveness is necessary as well. In either case, consider doing one or both steps bellow as necessary for the injured party. It costs you nearly nothing, only your sincerity along with your willingness to have this incident completely behind you. It’s a very small price to pay for a fabulous result. In fact, it’s a great deal for all.

  1. You can state that you feel badly or don’t feel good about what you did and the harm you caused, and that you regret doing it; say, “I feel badly / I don’t feel good about what I did. Now I know what harm occurred from it and I regret doing it.”
  2. Verbally offer an apology and ask forgiveness for what you said or did. Be specific about the issue at hand. Say, “I apologize and ask your forgiveness for saying / doing…”

Some authorities say that it is better to die with the truth instead of ever admitting responsibility to avoid hurting other people. Sometimes, as with affairs from years past, nothing good may come from saying anything today, especially if the behavior has ceased long ago given you have honestly grown and matured. Good judgment means weighing the possible harm to the injured party from your admission today and taking the steps to clean it up, against the possible harm of not acknowledging the incident, owning and cleaning it up given how ago it was, how different the times and circumstances were, and how far you have grown since then and not repeated the harmful action. Constant vigilance and care is critical to not rationalize misdeeds to feel more comfortable, avoid possible conflict, and not face up to your responsibilities in living.

The hardest decisions are not between right and wrong; rather the hardest, toughest and thorniest choices are between two rights. By using astute reflection, wise discernment, and drawing upon counsel with trusted mentors/consultants, including the indwelling divine, you can make the best apparent choices you can. While it is inevitable that you will make some mistakes in this life, it is a great support to have the use of powerful, effective tools to move all the way through these missteps and resolve guilt once and for all, time after time, until nothing remains. Upon your engagement in doing just this to completion over and over, you can fully return to the natural serenity, everyday happiness, and majesty of now, and dwell and abide in guiltless peace.

Keep Reading By Author Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D.
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