Can’t Stop Feeling Guilty?

by Andrea Blundell
Reviewed by Dr Sheri Jacobson

Feel guilty all the time, even if you aren’t sure what it is exactly you’ve done wrong?

Feeling like everything is your fault is often a sign of bigger issues.

When guilt is a good thing

Guilt isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. Evolutionary psychology has struggled to understand just how it came about, but suggests that it helped us stay a part of our tribe and survive. A 2018 study published in the Public Library of Science journal suggests that guilt aided in, " conscience and a code of intergroup competition."

And guilt, at a healthy level, still functions in this way. It is like a marker to let us know we’ve veered outside of behaviour that is acceptable to others. And it keeps us accountable. A 2012 study from Stamford university found that guilt-ridden types made for better employees.

When guilt goes wrong

The problem arises when we feel guilt when we have not taken an unhelpful action or upset others.

Instead our brain is producing guilt independently, and we are taking that guilt and using it to feel constantly bad about ourselves.

Or it might be we did something small, accidentally, but now are blaming ourselves for that and much more. We spilled a bit of coffee on a colleague, and are sure that is why their presentation went wrong two hours later.

Why is guilt a big deal?

Guilt, unsurprisingly, is connected to depression. It’s hard to feel good about life if we think we are at fault all the time.

And constantly feeling guilty is also connected to things like anxiety, self harm, suicidal thinking, and relationship problems.

What does unhelpful guilt look like?

So what does this unhelpful guilt look like? See if the following is familiar:

  • feeling it’s somehow your fault if others are unhappy or stressed
  • being haunted all day by a small mistake you made
  • getting defensive if someone asks you a question
  • taking all the responsibility for every conflict
  • always talking about what you ‘should have’ done
  • often saying ‘it’s all my fault’ or at least thinking it
  • being sure you are unlucky and bring others bad luck
  • quick to blame others for things (projecting your guilt).

Why am I feeling guilty all the time?

It’s a product of low self-esteem and a strong inner critic.

And it’s driven by negative unconscious beliefs that sound like, ‘I am flawed’, ‘nothing I do will ever be good enough’, ‘I am unloveble’, or even, “I am a monster’.

But how did you end up so hard on yourself, and with such a negative inner soundtrack?

The roots of constantly feeling guilty

Sometimes it’s a question of enviroment. You might have grown up in an extremely religious household, or with a parent who modelled nonstop guilt to you.

Or you were part of a culture that encouraged blame and an unrealistic right/wrong dichotomy. Or perhaps you experienced hardship like poverty or war, and felt guilty you were powerless to save your siblings and parents.

Often guilt comes from experiencing poor parenting. It might be that you had a very critical parent, or one who who blamed you for everything and held you overly accountable for the mistakes that children and adolescents all make. And now you have internalised their voice.

If you had a parent that wasn’t able to love you unconditionally, but left you to earn love by being pleasing? You'd learn quickly to feel guilty for daring to be tired, or grumpy, or angry.

Abuse, neglect, and guilt as a grownup

But by and far the biggest contributor to endless guilt as an adult are adverse childhood experiences like neglect and child abuse. They shatter a child’s sense of worth, and result in negative core beliefs such as feeling unloveable or a monster.

Many children, unable to comprehend why a bad thing like abuse has happened to them, blame themselves. If we don't at some point receive support to process our trauma, we end up an adult who can even feel guilty for daring to be alive.

Can therapy help my constant guilt?

Yes. Any sort of talk therapy can help you recognise where your feelings of guilt actually come from, and what you are and aren’t actually responsible for.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be a great place to start. It helps you recognise what thoughts are true, and which ones are actually cognitive distortions (thoughts that deviate from reality).

Compassion-focused therapy can help you be kinder to yourself instead of always beating yourself up.

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) focuses on learning to accept what you can and can’t control, and then learning to recognising what actions will make an improvement and what ones won’t.

Therapies under the humanistic umbrella, such as person-centred counselling, help you recognise you inner strengths and what is right about you.

Ready to stop feeling guilty and start feeling worthy? Find a therapist you like, book a session now, and get talking.

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