Shake It Off: 7 Ways to Let Go of Guilt

Sometimes guilt is appropriate: it links us to our moral compass and spurs us to right our wrongs. But too often, guilt crosses the line into inappropriate. It keeps us stuck, ruminating about the past, and, unchecked, can lead to depression.  So what should you do if you feel as guilty as a teenage boy with a freshly erased browser history? This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers 7 ways to let go of guilt.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #209

Tip #4: Challenge your assumptions of a lack of justification.

The second thinking error is called, quite simply, lack of justification. Here, we believe there was no good reason for the course of action we took—that we should have done better. For example, a veteran may feel guilty about shooting a suspect who ignored orders not to come any closer. Our listener Lou feels guilty for heinous behavior as an adolescent. 

When we feel guilty about an outcome, it's often because of two things. First, we believe there must have been a path to a better outcome. Second, we think we had the resources required for the ideal outcome at the time, even if we didn’t. 

To challenge these errors, think about the information, skills, and resources you had at the point where you made your decision. This often leads to the realization that there was no "good" option. Our veteran’s other option was not to shoot, which might have put her entire unit at risk. Lou’s teenage behavior likely made sense given her level of maturity at the time, or perhaps the family situation that surrounded her. Now that she’s older, both are different. To me, it sounds like Lou came out the other side with a strong conscience and a sense of wanting to do better, both commendable outcomes. To sum it all up, don’t hold actions of the past to the standards, skills, maturity, and wisdom of today.

Tip #5: Challenge a sense of overresponsibility.

The third thinking error is a concept called overresponsibility, where we believe we were solely or mostly responsible for what occurred. Classic examples are when kids blame themselves for their parents’ fighting, or rape survivors blame themselves for the assault.

To challenge this, ask yourself, “Who was acting inappropriately?” Was it the child? The assault survivor? No, of course not. 

Another way to challenge overresponsibility is to think of all the responsible factors. You hear my voice right now not only because you were responsible for hitting “play,” but also because I recorded the podcast, the distributor uploaded it, your favorite podcast source carries it, your device is working, you have the opportunity to listen, and more. Same thing applies to guilt: when you feel solely responsible, dig a little deeper—likely there exist a host of reasons that all add up.

Tip #6: Challenge the thinking error of wrongdoing.

The fourth and final thinking error is that of wrongdoing. This is a belief that you purposely did something wrong or violated your values. For example, one of my clients felt extraordinary guilt when, during a thunderstorm, she parked her parents’ car under a tree branch that later fell and damaged the car.

To challenge the thinking error of wrongdoing, think about intent. Think about the difference between knowingly doing harm versus a bad outcome unfolding unintentionally. A military example might include switching patrols with a buddy who then was killed on that patrol. A more mundane example might be recommending a restaurant where your friend contracts food poisoning.

But often, it’s less clear cut. And sometimes, we do find intent. We feel guilty for actual wrongdoing. We actually did spread a rumor about our ex. We did throw the intern under the bus at the meeting. In this case, guilt is appropriate, but among the grief-prone among us, it sometimes grows out of proportion. In this case, think about the emotions involved: anger, hurt, grief. Reflect on how much you’ve beat yourself up already. Think about whether you’d deliberately do it again. 

Remember, with any of these four challenges—hindsight, lack of justifiacation, overresponsibility, and wrongdoing—the goal isn’t simply to say, “It wasn’t my fault.” Instead, the four challenges help you put guilt-inducing behavior into context, feel some compassion for yourself, and move forward with your life.

Tip #7: Get older.

This is the simplest solution. Four researchers at the University of Queensland found that negative self-conscious emotion, like guilt and shame, is felt less frequently as we get older.

So if all else fails, just wait. Turns out that the travel agent in charge of your guilt trips will eventually retire.

Image of woman feeling guilty © Shutterstock


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets.