My first conscious and vivid encounter with guilt was when I was about 13 years old. It was the day of my parents’ official divorce. We were in the courthouse and, because of my age, I was assigned my own attorney. I had no idea why I had an attorney or even what was going on. My attorney was there for one reason only—to ask me which parent I wanted to live with. I had no idea I was going to be asked this question and had little time to think about my answer. I went with my gut and chose my father. I thought that was the best choice for me at the time. After the divorce proceedings my mother told me that I had humiliated her in front of everyone.

Now that I am a mother, I understand how hurt she must have felt. However, as a child, I just remember feeling that I had done something horribly wrong. I was overwhelmed with guilt. What I have learned is that the cycle of guilt starts early in life and, if not broken, will continue to affect your life.

The chains of guilt, like many negative emotions, take a toll on our physical, emotional, spiritual, and relational health. The physical manifestations of guilt include headaches, stomach disorders, lethargy, and even exhaustion. Emotionally, guilt may lead to depression and anger, causing us to lash out inappropriately. Guilt has a tendency to make us think we are inadequate in some way, impairing our self-esteem. This can affect every aspect of our lives. A by-product of guilt may be self-pity, which, in turn, can lead to a lack of motivation; we feel powerless to change our lives.

Unresolved guilt impacts relationships in many ways. We may feel irritable or angry. We may find it hard to enjoy our lives, which may make it difficult for others to enjoy us. When we don’t feel good about ourselves, we feel emotionally sensitive. This sensitivity can lead to a distorted perspective and cause harmful emotional reactions. Extreme guilt may even cause a withdrawal from loved ones, resulting in unmet needs and strained relationships. The spiritual repercussions of guilt can be an alienation from God, robbing us of the joy we deserve to feel in life. Guilt fills us with negative feelings and thoughts; it counteracts and destroys feelings of happiness. In order to move forward and enjoy life, we must release guilt and break the patterns that bind us to the cycle.

In order to eliminate guilty feelings, it is important to understand guilt. We have been taught to feel guilt when we do something “wrong.” Herein lies the problem: wrong by whose standards? Everyone seems more than ready to judge us: our friends, family, spouse, the experts, society. Many times, we pass judgment on ourselves, but who is “right”? There are moral, ethical, and legal standards that most people agree should be obeyed. However, after those standards are met, each of us must decide how to determine right from wrong in our lives. Ultimately, each of us determines what guidelines we choose to live by.

Guilt comes when we veer from the rules we have chosen to follow. When we believe we have disobeyed those rules, guilt becomes the signal for us to redirect our behavior. Guilt should be no more than that. Guilt does not determine one’s self-worth. “Valid guilt” should only be used to evaluate actions and make decisions on future behavior.

To illustrate, each person must evaluate whether a rule is valid and whether breaking the rule should result in guilt. When a mother decides to breast-feed her child until the age of three, she may feel the disapproval of people who disagree with that behavior. However, if she believes her decision is right for her and for her child, she must resist feeling guilty about her decision.

In summary, valid guilt comes when we behave in a way that does not support a rule or value that we fully embrace. Breaking rules we do not value or embrace may result in invalid guilt as we allow ourselves to be pressured by others in society. The true challenge is to understand our guilt and determine whether it is, indeed, valid.

All of us deserve to live free of guilty feelings. To do this, we must first recognize and challenge feelings that trigger guilt. We must then sort out the triggers that come from breaking rules we are invested in personally from those that have been imposed upon us by others. To do this, we must truly understand and honor those things that are important to us, and we must be willing to stop the unhealthy patterns that allow others to impose guilt upon us.
Following are some tips that may help break the chains and zap the guilt.

* If the guilt is valid, pray and ask for forgiveness.
* If the guilt is valid, apologize to any injured party.
* If the guilt is valid, forgive yourself.
* If the guilt is valid, take steps to change your behavior.
* If the guilt is invalid, let it go immediately.
* Tell yourself that it’s okay to make mistakes.
* Write your guilty feelings down on paper, and burn the paper.
* Journal your feelings until you have released the guilt.
* Talk to a trusted friend about your feelings.
* Accept your limitations as real and okay.
* Believe that you are worthy and lovable.
* Trust yourself.
* Ask God for help.
* Give yourself permission to say no.
* Weigh outside opinions lightly.
* Acknowledge and celebrate your gifts.
* Stop justifying your behavior.
* Stop apologizing when you haven’t done anything wrong.
* Take responsibility for your behavior only.
* Walk away or stand up to people who instill guilt.

By using these tips you will be better able to analyze your guilt and decide if the guilt is valid or invalid and will be able to take steps to conquer your guilt in the long term.

** This article is one of 101 great articles that were published in 101 Great Ways to Improve Your Life. To get complete details on “101 Great Ways to Improve Your Life”, visit

Author's Bio: 

Lori Radun, CEC, is a certified life coach and founder of True to You Life Coaching. She is also the mother of two boys. Lori’s coaching practice is centered on mothers and is focused on helping them to live fulfilling lives while they raise their children to be happy, healthy, and well-adjusted adults. Lori does this through speaking engagements, personal coaching, and other coaching products. More about Lori, her free newsletter, and the special report, “155 Things Moms Can Do to Raise Great Children,” are available on her Web site at