2805 Butterfield Road, Suite 120, Oak Brook, IL 60523
9631 West 153rd Street, Suite 33, Orland Park, IL 60462
3225 Shallowford Road, Suite 500, Marietta, GA 30062

Knowing the Difference Between Healthy and Unhealthy Guilt

Knowing the Difference Between Healthy and Unhealthy Guilt

We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t feel regret. Let’s face it: we all have done or said things in the past we wish we hadn’t. We all wish we had done something differently or gone a different route. It’s hard not to look back at your life and wonder, “What if?”

Feeling intense emotions, such as guilt, shame, or regret, can be all-consuming. There are both positive and negative aspects of the spectrum of emotions we feel as humans. Certain difficult emotions can be beneficial and an opportunity for growth when they are met with acceptance and understanding. Through acknowledgement of mistakes, we can forge a new path with the commitment to act in line with our values going forward. However, when we get stuck in the past and the cycle of shame and guilt to the point where it leads to rumination and further despair this is unhelpful.


Let’s talk about the difference between healthy and unhealthy guilt.

Healthy vs. Unhealthy Guilt

Healthy Guilt

Feeling guilty is not in itself unhealthy. Guilt is an emotion that happens when we feel like we have made a mistake that has either hurt ourselves, others, or made a situation more difficult. When guilt occurs in moderation and matches the facts of the situation (vs. anxiety), it can help us see our mistakes and make things right.

Healthy guilt is a precursor to self-growth and inner reflection. From our healthy feelings of guilt, we will feel motivated to try and do better in the future. Healthy guilt, while it is sometimes accompanied by shame, does not make us feel like we are inherently and irreversibly bad.

Unhealthy Guilt

If healthy guilt motivates us to do better, unhealthy guilt is the negative voice in our heads. That voice keeps us in the past, repeating things that could have been different through the process of rumination.

When we experience unhealthy guilt, we are attempting to take responsibility for things we cannot control. We are forcing ourselves to feel responsibility for harm we did not cause. We hold regret for things that have happened that we apologized for but still weigh heavily on us.

Unhealthy guilt can begin as healthy guilt, but unlike healthy guilt it never goes away with appropriate action steps. When we ruminate about the past, mentally replaying what we could have done or said differently, we are not living in the present moment or moving forward with meaningful action. When left unattended and not addressed, this cycle can lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression.


How to Foster Healthy Guilt

The good news is, you can maintain a healthy relationship with guilt if you understand how to foster it.

Accept Your Mistakes

The idea of perfectionism fuels unhealthy guilt. We expect things to be precisely how we envision things, whether it is ourselves, other people, or situations. Inevitably, something goes awry, and it doesn’t turn out how we pictured it. Mistakes will happen. Mistakes should not be seen as complete failures; instead, view them as opportunities to grow. What can you do in the future to prevent this mishap from happening again? Understand that you are human, and we are bound to make mistakes. How we choose to cope with this can help us combat feelings of unhealthy guilt and move forward with acceptance.

Understand Control

Realistically, what can you control? What can you not?

Things we cannot control are sometimes the very thing that can get us stuck in a spiral of guilt. We can’t control how someone feels and we have no control over another person’s actions. We only have control over what we do and how we react in a situation.

Understanding what you can control gives you the power to accept that you aren’t responsible for everything.



Feelings of guilt are normal, and there is nothing wrong with experiencing guilt when appropriate. Guilt becomes a problem when it begins to become excessive and all-consuming, affecting our mental well-being. The clinicians at The OCD and Anxiety Center are trained in evidenced based therapies that can equip you with coping skills to manage guilt effectively, if you are grappling with excessive feelings of guilt, don’t hesitate to reach out to us. We will help you learn tools to cope with these feelings, focus on the present moment vs, getting stuck in the past, and live a life in accordance with your values.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

2805 Butterfield Road suite 120
Oak Brook, IL 60523

(630) 522-3124

Got Questions?
Send a Message!

Please be aware that this web form is intended for general information only. No specific medical advice will be given for questions posed through this form.