Understanding and Tolerating Guilt

By Rosie Barton, LMSW

We all experience guilt over the course of our lives. It’s one of our many emotions—just like sadness, joy, shame, or anger. And yet, I frequently work with clients who are experiencing a deep sense of guilt, often as a chronic, persistent feeling that they are never good enough or doing enough. During graduate school, one of my professors asked us in a class if we knew what the definition of guilt was, and I’ve never forgotten his response. He told us that “guilt is real or imagined wrongdoing.” 

I was struck by the concept of “imagined wrongdoing.” While I never want to invalidate a client’s feeling of guilt — after all, the feeling is one hundred percent real to him or her, I often try to explore whether they have actually done something so terrible as to merit those intense feelings of guilt and self-recrimination. 

Feeling guilty isn’t always a bad thing. Guilt serves a purpose after all — it’s a sign that we’re aware of what’s right and wrong, which is crucial as a member of society. Guilt also allows us to acknowledge when we have done something wrong, and to therefore make amends for it and change our behavior. However, guilt becomes less adaptive when we begin to feel guilty for who we are, rather than for something we have done. For example, a client with an eating disorder might feel guilty for eating a meal and then think “I am bad.” An important part of recovery is being able to tolerate that feeling of guilt and to still not skip the meal because of it.

For example, sometimes you might think:

  • “I can’t say no to my mom, I’ll feel too guilty.” 
  • “I’ll feel too guilty if I ask my coworker for help when she’s already so busy.” 
  • “If I take a break from studying to meet my friend, I’ll feel guilty.” 

And so what if you feel guilty? Can you set boundaries, ask for help, and practice self-care despite the feelings of guilt that might ensue? Chances are, feeling guilty is probably something you can live through. Being able to tolerate guilt (what I might call “imagined wrongdoing” in these instances) can actually be a sign that you are taking care of yourself and identifying your needs, which can feel very foreign and uncomfortable at first, especially if you are used to putting everyone else ahead of you. 

It’s ok to let yourself feel guilty, and more importantly, to not act on it through avoidance or perfectionism. I often find that clients avoid certain actions or conversations that might be beneficial to them because they fear feeling guilty. I like to remind them of exactly what I stated in the first paragraph: guilt is just one of many emotions that we will experience as humans. And, like all emotions, eventually guilt will shift and give way to other feelings. Sometimes that requires us to tolerate the discomfort of a feeling we might rather avoid. But the more we can allow ourselves to experience the full breadth of our emotions without avoiding them or pushing them beneath the surface, the more well-equipped we are to fully engage in our lives and with the people around us. 

Rosie Barton is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy. If you would like support in exploring and managing emotions, visit cobbpsychotherapy.com to learn more about how therapy can help.