How to Handle Your Guilt

These six strategies will help relieve the pressure you may feel.

Photo by Marcus Nilsson

Strategy 1: Talk It Out 

That unfortunate joke you told at the party sounds horrible when you play it over and over in your head. But if you tell a friend, it may not seem so bad. “Secrecy is the intensifier of guilt,” says Edward Hallowell, M.D., author of Dare to Forgive: The Power of Letting Go & Moving On ($13,, because keeping it to yourself doesn’t allow for fresh perspective. “Once you’ve bared something that you find troubling and discover that your friend isn’t nearly as shocked as you thought she would be, the guilt begins to drain away and you feel better.” And even if your friend is somewhat shocked, just airing the topic can keep you committed to being more sensitive in the future. By discussing the issue openly, “you accept the fact that you’re not perfect, that you’ve done things that aren’t pretty,” says Hallowell. But that doesn’t mean you should punish yourself forevermore.

Strategy 2: Try to Make Amends

If you’ve done something that you truly regret, say you’re sorry and try to remedy the situation. Most people appreciate the conciliatory gesture because it’s a signal that you care about their feelings and value the relationship. And you may find that they weren’t all that upset. “Very often the things you are feeling guilty about didn’t have any impact on the other person and you’re suffering for no reason,” says Hallowell,

Strategy 3: Try a Reality Check

Guilt often arises automatically, based on standards internalized during childhood. So before you reflexively accept guilt, take a minute to stop and ask, “Am I consciously living by my own expectations?” says Mark R. Leary, Ph.D. Perhaps your mother washed and waxed the floor twice a week. But you may not feel that’s the best use of your time and energy, so you choose not to. Still, you feel guilty about not waxing. Those are your mother’s priorities, not yours. And keep in mind that you may be the only one who is invested in the thing you feel so guilty about. “Worrying about your failings as a mother because you didn’t bake homemade cupcakes when the child doesn’t even care is guilt gone wrong,” says Margaret Clark, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Yale University.