Learn how to let go of guilt, especially false guilt.
We often feel guilty when we haven’t done anything wrong or continue to beat ourselves up over a minor misstep. Are you ready to let go of guilt and start feeling better about yourself?
If you have codependent traits, you probably take responsibility for things you didn’t do, problems you didn’t cause, and circumstances or people that you can’t control. And as a result, you may feel guilty – even when you haven’t done anything wrong.
Let’s look at an example.
Ethan’s father brings his dog, Kody, almost everywhere. And although the dog bit Ethan a few years ago, he never objects when his dad brings Kody to his house. But Ethan has a new baby and he’s concerned about having an aggressive dog around his son. So, he politely and calmly told his father that he can no longer bring Kody when he visits. Ethan thought this was an understandable boundary, but his father was angry. “Well, what am I supposed to do with Kody? I can’t leave him home alone all the time! Why do you have to be so difficult? You’re always overreacting!” his Dad yelled. After the conversation, Ethan felt guilty and wondered if he was being unreasonable. He decided to call his father and apologize.
What is guilt?
Guilt is the feeling or belief that you’ve done something wrong. It’s a painful feeling, especially for those of us who so badly want to please people (or at least not create conflict).
Guilt has a purpose. When you’ve done something wrong, the discomfort of feeling guilty can help you change and do better in the future.
But if you feel guilty when you haven’t done anything wrong, guilt causes problems. You might call this inappropriate guilt or false guilt because the feeling is based on a misperception – thinking you’ve done wrong when you haven’t.
Are you experiencing false guilt?
People with codependent and people-pleasing traits are susceptible to false guilt because we hold ourselves to unrealistically high standards (perfectionism), want to avoid conflicts, base our self-worth on being liked and helping others, and are afraid of rejection. As a result, we feel bad about things we didn’t do, couldn’t control, and that aren’t our responsibility.
False guilt is a problem because it prevents us from taking care of ourselves. Like Ethan, you may feel guilty when you set a boundary or you may feel guilty when you do something for yourself, like take a day off or go to the gym.
If you feel guilty in these situations, it’s because you’ve been told that you shouldn’t do these things — it’s wrong to set boundaries and consider your needs.
To see if your guilt is warranted, ask yourself:
- Is it really wrong to ________________?
- Do I believe this is wrong or is this someone else’s belief?
- Would I tell a friend that it’s wrong to _______________?
- Is my guilt based on unrealistic expectations of myself?
- Does feeling guilty about __________ help me be the healthiest, happiest version of myself?
- Can I tolerate someone being displeased with me if I’m doing what’s best for me?
Guilt can also cause us to enable or unconsciously encourage others to avoid their responsibilities and remain dependent. When you take responsibility for someone else’s problems, feelings, or needs, they don’t have to figure things out for themselves.
But many of us persist in enabling behaviors because we think it’s our job to take care of others or make their lives easier. And while this sounds like a nice thing to do, it doesn’t ultimately help the other person and it leaves us feeling defeated, frustrated, and guilty because we can’t actually solve their problems.
Here are some questions that can help you challenge guilt based on the belief that you are responsible for other adults.
- How am I overly responsible?
- How does my being overly responsible allow others to avoid their responsibilities?
- Do I enable others out of guilt?
- Does my enabling truly help my loved one solve his problems or become a more responsible, capable, independent person?
- Does enabling resolve my feelings of guilt and anxiety or do these feelings just return later?
How to let go of guilt
When we feel false guilt, others can (intentionally or unintentionally) manipulate us. We are like putty in their hands because pleasing others relieves our feelings of guilt. Ethan can stop feeling guilty if he lets his father bring his dog over. You can stop feeling guilty if you work all weekend or pay your sister’s rent.
Or you can relieve your guilt by challenging it (using the questions above) and recognizing that you didn’t need to feel guilty in the first place.
You’re allowed to take care of yourself, meet your own needs, and do what’s right for you. If you don’t, you’ll continue to sacrifice yourself for others. And you’ll pay a steep price for this; you’ll probably end up exhausted, sick, resentful, unfulfilled, anxious, and discouraged. You deserve better!
You don’t have to be controlled by false guilt. You are not responsible for everyone’s problems, unhappiness, anger, and suffering. Recognizing this can lift a big weight off your shoulders. It’s not wrong or bad to take care of yourself, to say no, to insist on being treated with respect, or to let others deal with the consequences of their choices.
You can let go of guilt!
©2021 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
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9 thoughts on “How to Let Go of Guilt”
Thank you! I really appreciate this article.
Brilliant article Sharon. This was me up until I was 38 years old. It took me having a major depressive episode after a family betrayal to realise that I needed to change, start believing in myself and show myself compassion. I look back now at how confused I was about my role, and acknowledge myself for being able to take the shift. Your work is incredible, and has helped me a lot. Thank you
The foregoing essay is completely correct but it does not deal with the consequences of letting go of one’s guilt. In the example cited, Ethan’s father is extremely unlikely to simply accept that his son is an adult and, therefore, capable of making his own decisions. In my own experience, people like Ethan’s father simply never understand what their adult child is accomplishing. Making the decision to let go of guilt (or do anything else that is necessary for one’s health) is the easier part of the solution to the problem. The more difficult part is handling the reaction of the person who is no longer getting his/her way (Ethan’s father in the example). How does Ethan (the adult child) deal with his father’s resulting anger and continuing efforts to control Ethan?
Yes, I’ve written a number of articles about detaching, setting boundaries, and ending relationships with difficult people. Here’s one that might be helpful: https://livewellwithsharonmartin.com/set-boundaries-toxic-people/
Thank you! What about “real guilt” , for things you have done?
Make amends if needed and appropriate, work on forgiving yourself (https://www.livewellwithsharonmartin.com/self-forgiveness/), and learn to do better.
Judgment is complex. I think feeling guilty when you are not guilty is ‘shame’. Yet our society often uses the word shame when the word guilt is correct. A recent example is CNN news reporters saying “he had no shame”. Yet the people being discussed were clearly guilty. Shame is a feeling you are guilty when you are not guilty. People often are quick to say “you should be ashamed”, although they do not know all the important details concerning your behavior. Judgment is complex.
Guilt has been a common feeling for me. I never really considered false guilt until I explored narcissistic/emotional abuse. That narrative helped me unload a lot if false guilt. I am working on challenging guilt now and it’s amazing the freer I feel. Thanks!