Overcoming Feelings of Guilt

Guilty feelings are so much a part of our lives that we take little notice. They show up when we’re feeling like an issue or problem is our fault, or when we’re neglecting things we “should” be doing or “should” have done. Sometimes guilty feelings can prompt us to do things we might not feel like doing. They push us to be pro-social, reaching out to grandparents, parents, partners or friends because we feel we “should,” and we know we’ll feel guilty if we don’t. In these instances, guilty feelings can have a positive effect on our relationships.

Feeling Guilty and Anxious For Things You Can’t Control

But, much of the time the guilty feelings aren’t based on facts or the reality of the situation. They’re often formulated around things we have little control over. They arise when we worry about the way things might be different if only we’d done X, Y or Z. Worrying about the “what-ifs” or “if-onlys” creates guilty, anxious feelings because a part of us believes that maybe we’re the reason things went wrong.

 feeling guilty can increase anxiety

feeling guilty can increase anxiety

When guilt creeps in, it can stop you from moving forward and from really connecting with what’s happening inside you. Guilt can leave you feeling incompetent, not good enough or even worse — that you’re worthless; reinforcing what your internal critic tells you all the time. Then your anxiety and depression increase, throwing you for a loop.

The question is, do we really have that much control over the randomness of life? Is it really our fault when bad things happen? Maybe we can start paying closer attention to those times when we’re feeling guilty and be curious about how much control we really have.

Why Mindfulness Is Helpful

Being more mindful can help slow things down. It can make you more aware of how your body reacts to your stress and guilty feelings. It can help you to be curious about what you’re telling yourself when you’re feeling guilty. Being mindful of our emotions can help us identify what we’re feeling and what triggered those feelings. Then you can work toward offering yourself some compassion. Here’s an example from my own life:

My son was leaving our home to go back to his. About an hour after he left, he called to say his car was acting strangely. My husband and I both spoke to him, offering advice, and he continued on his way. Not long after, he called again to say the car had broken down in the middle of a huge freeway, and he was stuck inside it in the middle of traffic. We were panicked, to put it mildly! My husband and I helped him through the crisis. He and the car survived, but it was a harrowing experience.

Afterward I experienced a few moments of worry over how we could have done things differently. I felt a little guilty about things I didn’t say but wished I had. The feelings weren’t strongly present, and I went to bed feeling relieved that my son was safe. I awoke in the middle of the night with my heart pounding. I couldn’t fall back to sleep, because the thoughts of what I “should” have done were circling my brain, leaving me feeling stressed, anxious and guilty as hell. I was telling myself that if only I’d only done X, Y and Z, everything would’ve been different. The car wouldn’t have broken down and all the stress would’ve been avoided.

Now that I see my feelings put down in writing, my thoughts seem pretty ridiculous and grandiose. As if I have that much power over the universe! But in the moment, my responsibility in the crisis felt very real.

Mindful Attention

 Mindful journaling can clarify your thoughts.

Mindful journaling can clarify your thoughts.

I was able to go back to sleep after using some mindful deep breathing to calm myself, but the next day the feelings returned. So I slowed things down, I sat with my uncomfortable feelings and, using mindful journaling, I curiously explored what was happening for me in that moment. Here are a few things I discovered:

  • I felt like I had a tight ball of cold energy in my stomach.
  • My mind kept rehearsing the things I wished I’d said.
  • The thoughts weren’t only about the car and his safety. I’d moved into “this proves I’m not a good mom.” And that touched my core.

Paying mindful attention to my physical and emotional reactions allowed me recognize what was going on as I sat with those difficult feelings. I placed a hand on my stomach where I stored the tension. I took some slow deep breaths and then offered myself some compassion. And I felt better! I was no longer obsessing about the “what-ifs” and “if-onlys.” I was able to recognize that, although the situation made me have thoughts about being a bad mom, I could be compassionate about how hard I was being on myself and I could reinforce my self-worth. The tension released, and I slept like a baby the next night.

Practicing Mindfulness

Would you like to learn how to:

  • Slow things down?
  • Be more curious about your experience?
  • Practice more self-compassion?
  • Identify and understand your feelings?
  • Be more present in the moment?

Mindfulness groups will be starting this Fall. If you’re interested in learning more, please reach out so we can get started!


Elizabeth Cush, LCPC is a therapist and the owner of Progression Counseling in Annapolis, Md. She helps busy, overwhelmed men and women manage their anxiety and stress so they can live their lives with more ease, contentment and purpose.

Photo by Nik Shuliahin and Green Chameleon on Unsplash