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  • Writer's pictureFrancis Merson

How to Avoid a Pointless Guilt Trip

Updated: Jun 11

Guilt has the power to either bring out our best, or be our worst enemy. Here's how to know the difference, and manage guilt wisely...

Guilt is a complex emotion that can arise in a multitude of situations. It can sometimes be helpful: if you've genuinely messed something up, guilt can inspire you to correct the situation and reflect on your mistakes. But guilt can also trigger endless spirals of self-castigation that help no one – and just make you feel bad.

Understanding how to manage guilt starts with working out, firstly, what causes guilt and, secondly, when it’s helpful and when it isn’t.

Should I feel guilty about this?

Guilt generally occurs when we believe we have done something wrong that has adversely affected someone else. In other words, it relies on the recognition that our actions have not aligned with our moral values, and someone has suffered as a result. Where it gets complicated is that other people can try to make you feel guilty, and sometimes succeed – even if you haven’t really done anything wrong. And some of us even go through life assuming we should feel guilty every time we make a mistake, or prioritise our own needs .

So when you feel guilty, the first step is to ask yourself: "Have I actually done something wrong here?"

For example, consider a scenario where your partner is upset because you didn’t want to watch a film with them that evening. In this situation, your behaviour might not be guilt-worthy – you just said what you wanted, which is important for healthy relationship boundaries. So your guilt in this instance might be misplaced, as you didn’t do anything wrong – even though your partner is upset. Other people being upset doesn’t necessarily mean you did something wrong.

Conversely, if you missed an important family birthday because you were drunk at the casino, your guilt may well be justified (depending on what your values are, of course). This scenario probably involved actions that violate personal and shared values. In this case, the guilt could serve as a signal that your behaviour was harmful, and inspire you to make amends, build bridges and perhaps even become a better person.

Another way to establish if your guilt has a valid basis is to consider whether you would advise a friend to act as you did in a similar situation. If the answer is yes, your actions are likely in line with your values, and your guilt may be unfounded. However, if you would advise them against your actions, your guilt may suggest you’re out of line with your values, and might motivate you to prevent similar behaviour in the future.


The benefits of guilt are fleeting. It can serve as a short-term motivator, prompting us to rectify mistakes, but spiralling into self-punishment is counterproductive to personal growth...


A very important caveat to any conversation about guilt is that its benefits are rather fleeting. While it can serve as a short-term motivator, prompting us to rectify mistakes and align our actions with our values, dwelling on guilt long-term does not foster growth. Spiraling into a lengthy cycle of self-punishment is counterproductive to personal development and well-being. If your guilt isn’t inspiring action or personal growth, you can feel free to let it go. Recognizing this can help guilt become a catalyst for positive change, rather than a barrier to it.

Moving Beyond Guilt: The Role of Compassion

Given that guilt is generally about how we treat other people, a more helpful and sustainable approach can be to cultivate compassion – both for yourself and others. Compassion involves recognizing someone’s suffering and feeling motivated to alleviate it. This attitude extends beyond simply feeling bad about someone's pain, or focusing on how you messed up. It involves an active desire to improve the situation.

Compassionate Self-Reflection

Instead of dwelling on your own faults, you can focus on understanding and addressing the underlying issues that might have led to the regrettable actions.

This involves:

  • Acknowledging any pain caused, to yourself and to others.

  • Considering constructive ways to alleviate this pain by helping yourself or someone else

  • Forgiving yourself and endeavouring to act more compassionately towards others in future, if appropriate

Compassion outshines guilt by promoting positive change and healing without recrimination. While guilt sparks awareness, compassion drives us to fix the harm and grow from it. It shifts focus from self-criticism to proactive support, fostering resilience and empathy for ourselves and others.

Guilt is a powerful emotion that can either hinder or enhance our personal development, depending on how we handle it. By critically assessing the validity of our guilt, using it constructively when appropriate, and fostering a compassionate approach towards ourselves and others, we can manage guilt effectively. This not only helps improve our mental health but also strengthens our relationships and aligns our actions more closely with our deepest values.

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