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Got Guilt? How to Get Over It

Frank’s Comment:
Has useful examples of the impact of changing self-talk: how to be less critical of self and how that empowers us to perform better in most areas of life.

Joan Borysenko, PhD Claritas Institute for Interspiritual Inquiry

Quick: Think of three things you’re feeling guilty about right now. For many women, the only hard part is limiting the list to just three. Guilt can be productive or paralyzing, justified or undeserved, healthy or unhealthy. The difference lies in the cause of the guilt feelings — and what you do about them.

Healthy guilt is a moral compass. It alerts us when we are unkind or irresponsible… and prods us when we neglect something important.

Unhealthy guilt shows up when we blame ourselves for issues outside our control… feel responsible for other people’s emotions… have trouble setting boundaries… or feel overly concerned about inconveniencing others. The sense that we have to be everything to everybody affects many women. It is an exaggeration of our natural nurturing urge.

Research from the University of California, Los Angeles, reveals that, for women, tending to others is a stress reducer. Nurturing triggers the release of the hormone oxytocin that, in addition to promoting the bond between mothers and babies, produces a sense of peace and well-being.

Women often are so preoccupied with taking care of others that self-care suffers. We feel selfish when we turn attention to ourselves.


To distinguish healthy guilt from unhealthy guilt, step back from your automatic reaction and analyze your role in a specific situation.

Example: Your sister is upset with you. If your knee-jerk response is, “It must be my fault — I’m a bad sister,” that’s unhealthy guilt. But if you have said, “Sorry, Sis, I’m too busy to talk right now,” the last five times she phoned, your detachment may indeed be contributing to the problem. In that case, corrective action is called for. Working through healthy guilt requires a series of steps…

Admit to yourself that you’ve done wrong. Guilt is such a powerful and unpleasant emotion that we are tempted to rationalize our behavior. Example: At work, you took credit for a colleague’s idea. You try to justify it by telling yourself, “I put more work into this project than my coworker did.” When we excuse our bad behavior, we avoid taking responsibility. An “it’s not my fault” attitude makes any positive change unlikely.

Confide in someone. Research suggests that keeping secrets is highly stressful and can result in stress-related disorders, such as headaches, back pain and digestive complaints. By telling someone you trust about the issue, you can start to convert immobilizing shame into constructive action. Important: Choose a confidante who won’t feel burdened by the information — for instance, a member of the clergy, a therapist or a friend who is not acquainted with the other people involved.

Ask yourself why. When we wrong another person, it is often because a deep need is not being acknowledged or met. By coming to a conscious understanding of your motives, you will be less likely to repeat the action. Example: Although your job performance is acceptable, you can’t shake the feeling that you are in over your head. Once you have identified the unmet need — in this case, for a confidence boost — you can seek appropriate ways of fulfilling it, such as finding a mentor or taking a class to build your professional skills.

Make amends. Apologizing to the person you wronged is a good start, but you also must take action to correct or contain the damage — if doing so will not cause additional harm. Example: Coming clean with your colleague and boss about having taken undue credit is appropriate. Confessing a long-ago affair to your husband is not — because even if baring your soul would make you feel better, it could cause him needless pain.

If you can’t make amends directly to the person you hurt, perform a service — such as volunteering at a soup kitchen or battered women’s shelter — and privately dedicate it to the person you wronged.

Acknowledge what you’ve learned. Whether or not the person you harmed forgives you, forgive yourself. Respect what you’ve become as a result of the experience — a more considerate and self-aware woman.


When an overactive guilty conscience prevents us from setting appropriate boundaries, we can’t do a good job of taking care of ourselves or others. We need to practice saying no. Setting limits is easier when we identify not just what we need to say no to, but also the deep personal needs to which we are saying yes.

Example: Your friend’s birthday party is this weekend. She lives two hours away, and you are utterly exhausted — but the thought of skipping the gala fills you with guilt. Identify two vital needs — to let your friend know how much she means to you… and to take care of your own well-being. Now you can speak to your friend clearly and kindly, saying, “I love you and want to celebrate your special day, but I’m so depleted that I’m not sure I could get to the party in one piece. Let’s talk about how we can celebrate together later in the month.”

If unhealthy guilt is a habitual response, learn to counter that habit through repeated self-reflection. Set aside 10 minutes every night to ask yourself two questions…

Were there times today when I needed to nurture myself — but didn’t do it? Example: “I needed to use a restroom during the drive to my in-laws’ house, but I waited because my husband didn’t want to stop.”

When was I harsh with myself? Example: “I called myself a stupid klutz when I burned the cookies for the charity bake sale.”

Write down the answers, then review the situations in which you neglected your needs. Think of an alternative response for each one and mentally rehearse it to use next time. For instance, practice saying, “Please respect my need to feel comfortable,” or “It was kind of me to donate cookies to charity, even if they were crispy.” The idea is not to catch yourself “failing” at self-care, but rather to become aware of the subtle ways that guilt creeps into your life. Asking and answering these questions with compassion for yourself helps to banish unhealthy guilt — for good.

By Donald Carroll



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