Exploring Emotion: Guilt

By Sherry Atanasio, LMSW

It’s my belief that in order to live the life we want, we have to understand, process and accept the emotions that make it hard for us to do so.   So much happens in life that often our emotions get put on the back-burner, where they sit and fester or get released in ways that we aren’t particularly proud about.  While it can be unpleasant to really get in touch with our emotions, it’s necessary if we want to do something about it. For this reason I decided to write a series focusing on one emotion each month.

I often hear statements such as, “it’s a bad feeling so I don’t want anything to do with it.” However, with this mindset we forget that emotions serve many purposes (they are not just a catalyst to sit on the couch and binge-watch Netflix). In a very general sense, emotions are the internal dialogue within us that not only help us communicate with ourselves and others, but also motivate and inspire us to change and create change.

This month’s post is dedicated to guilt, which manifests at various intensities. On one end of the spectrum it could look like remorse about something minor that’s happened, and on the other end it can be intense regret. Guilt lets us know that we’ve hurt someone (even ourselves), or violated our own values in some way. It can also serve to let us know how we feel about our past actions.

Sometimes our guilt can be so strong that it causes us to assume we are to blame for something we didn’t do, but sometimes it can propel us to take action. Without guilt, we wouldn’t know when to apologize or make amends with others, and we wouldn't try to repair or change a difficult situation. This wouldn’t bode well for self-improvement purposes or for our relationships!

However, sometimes we’ve done all of these things and the guilt is still there. If this happens, then here are some things to consider:

  • Opposite Action: doing the opposite of what our guilt generally tells us to do. For example, our guilt may have us apologizing over and over with little change or benefit. Ultimately this is harmful to our integrity, so instead take a step back from the situation and it may be possible that the apology isn’t necessary at all.
  • Take in ALL the information about the situation instead of fixating on the part that is attached to our guilt.
  • Consider what it would be like to make others (that we are safe from rejection with) aware of our behavior or traits that we feel such guilt about.
  • Join new groups or make new friends with like-minded values, who will not reject important parts of ourselves that cause us to feel guilt.
  • Learn to validate ourselves and be present. This doesn’t have to absolve us completely, but can look something like, “Doing ____ wasn’t the wisest thing I could’ve done at the time, and I’ve come regret it, but it makes sense I did it because _____. I can’t change what happened then, but I can make changes now.”

While checking in with feelings of guilt may be uncomfortable in the moment, in the long run it may lead to some beneficial changes in your life.  

Sherry Atanasio, LMSW is a therapist in private practice in Manhattan and Brooklyn. If you would like support in exploring and managing emotions, visit cobbpsychotherapy.com to learn more about how therapy can help.