22 Ways to Stop Feeling Guilty All the Time

Updated: Jan. 14, 2021

All that self-blame can take a major toll on your mental and physical health. Here’s how to retrain your brain to stop feeling guilty.

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Woman in a plaid shirt covering her mouth with her hands as if crying.

Quit the blame game

When something goes wrong, we naturally start looking for a person to blame—and that person is often ourselves. But feeling guilty won’t help the situation. Remember that the world is complex, and often a whole series of events contributed to what went wrong, explains Fran Walfish, a psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, CA, and a consultant on The Doctors. Don’t bear (or assign) all the blame for the outcome, but accept that bad things happen, no matter how hard you try. Try these 28 tiny pick-me-ups for when you’re having the worst day ever.

Father and daughter reading a book at the kitchen table.

Get to the root of your guilt

Do some soul-searching and figure out why you’re feeling guilty (this, as opposed to ruminating over it), says Jameela Jackson, a counselor and marriage and family therapist in North Little Rock, AR. If you feel like you should be volunteering at your kids’ school more, ask yourself why you haven’t. Have other parents made comments that make you feel like you’re not doing enough? Does the thought of reading out loud give you anxiety, but you’d happily help with snack duty at a class party? You know what’s best for you and your family, so getting to the bottom of your guilt will help you find an effective way to address what you anything you need to.

Woman sitting at a table writing in a notebook with a pen.

Keep a guilt journal

As soon as guilty feelings start to nag, jot them down in a journal. Record the time, day, and why you feel bad, then revisit your entries every couple of weeks. Look for any trends that might help explain the underlying reasons for your guilt. Here are 6 easy steps you can take to develop a positive attitude.

A man and woman lying in a hammock on a patio outdoors.

Give yourself a true retreat

A vacation is hardly a vacation if you spend the entire time thinking about what productive things you “should” be doing instead. When you feel those thoughts creeping in, remind yourself why you took a break from stress in the first place. After all, getting away from the anxiety of your daily grind is a much-needed break that will help you get back to feeling refreshed, Walfish says. Here are 7 ways to ensure your free time is truly relaxing.

Woman lying on the couch using her cell phone.

Prioritize yourself

Looking out for yourself isn’t selfish—it’s healthy. Sometimes we feel guilty for taking care of ourselves, but not only is self-care important it will also help you be a better caretaker to others as well, Walfish says. Remember the oxygen mask analogy? You can’t help others if you can’t breathe first. (Here’s how to overcome an existential crisis.)

Little girl sitting on a swing in a park with her parents in the background.
iStock/Leonardo Patrizi

Correct your mistakes

Sometimes we spend more energy beating ourselves up for our mistakes than we do making them right. Instead of wasting time feeling guilty, accept your mistake and do your best to make it right, Jackson says. If you feel bad that you went shopping instead of playing outside with your kids over the weekend, take them to the park this evening.

Woman in a dress leaning on a railing in a house.

Be a friend to yourself

One way to be more forgiving of yourself is to see your mistakes from someone else’s perspective, Jackson says. Pretend that your friend is facing a similar issue—would you want that person to internalize those feelings like you have? The truth is you’re probably being harder on yourself than anyone would expect or want, so give yourself the same benefit of the doubt that you’d allow anyone else, she says. Don’t miss these 10 ways to be nicer to yourself.

Woman sitting on the living room floor reading a book and drinking from a mug.
iStock/Eva Katalin Kondoros

Realize you weren’t necessarily wrong

Other people’s reactions can make you feel guilty, even when you weren’t in the wrong, Walfish says. Maybe you are in need of a quiet day to yourself when a high-maintenance friend calls with another crisis. Saying “no” isn’t a bad thing, it’s a good way to set boundaries and protect your mental health, she says. In fact, you’ll probably find yourself able to give better advice if you don’t feel so much pressure. Here are 24 ways you can be an even better friend.

Man hugging two people outdoors.
iStock/Aldo Murillo

Forgive yourself

Once you’ve done everything you can to make a situation right, it’s time to forgive yourself, Jackson says. Start by making amends if you hurt someone—write a letter, apologize face-to-face, or commit to making a change. Once you feel like you’ve made a positive step, it will be easier to give yourself permission to forgive yourself.

Two women office workers speaking to each other at a table.

Just say “no”

Make a practice of saying no at least once a day, Walfish says. You’ll regain control over your life and realize you don’t have to feel guilty every time you refuse an extra burden.


Look ahead, not behind

Ruminating over the things you can’t change won’t solve anything—it just lets feelings eat away at you, Jackson says. Instead of asking, “What if?” ask yourself, “What now?” Learn from your past mistakes, and use them to make a positive change to your own life and others around you.

Two women talking in an outdoor cafe.
iStock/Petar Chernaev

Get someone else’s perspective

If you’re kicking yourself over a specific incident, bring it up with a friend or relative who was there. You might be remembering the situation incorrectly, and a loved one can help remind you of the context and see your actions in a more forgiving light, she says. Here are 37 ways to make managing stress easier.

Man and woman sitting at a table talking to each other.

Ignore the guilt trip

The only person you can control is yourself, so if a parent, partner, or boss is making you feel awful, start by taking control of your own reaction. Apologize sincerely and make amends if necessary, but don’t let someone else define how your mistake should make you feel, Walfish says. At the end of the day, you’re the only one in charge of your feelings.

Man and woman sitting on a brown leather couch together.

Check your priorities

Write down your top three priorities, whether it’s your kids, your partner, your career, your spirituality, or your health. If you start feeling guilty about something you didn’t do, pull out your list. Not in your top three? Not worth the guilt trip. (You can also use some of these 15 time management tips.)

Mother and daughter rolling out dough with a rolling pin in the kitchen.

Know your gifts make up for your failures

You might not be gifted in every area, but you do have talents to offer and those are important, Jackson says. Maybe you don’t always make healthy homemade meals, but you have never missed your kids’ soccer games. Even if you aren’t the type to make big romantic gestures, your partner probably knows you will always listen and say the right thing when something happens.

Person at a desk writing in a notebook with a pen.

List your good qualities

You are probably your own worst critic, so it’s easy to ignore your good qualities and focus on what you do wrong, says Walfish. But being secure and happy with yourself can do wonders in fighting against that inner critic. Write down 10 things you love about yourself, and pull it out whenever you’re feeling inadequate. Here are 9 tricks to beat negative self-talk.

Woman reading a book on the couch drinking red wine.

Remember: Moderation is OK

Quit feeling guilty over your indulgences, Walfish says. Red wine may help your heart, dark chocolate is full of antioxidants, and popcorn is packed with fiber. A little treat won’t kill you (and probably won’t add 10 pounds), so give yourself permission to enjoy those little luxuries.

Woman in workout clothes lying on a yoga mat at the gym.

Set aside time to feel guilty

Take 5 minutes to let those guilty feelings come to you. Now either remedy that problem (give your mom a call, or carve out time for the gym), or take it as a lived-and-learned lesson and forgive yourself, Jackson says.

Man sitting in a chair looking thoughtfully out his patio window.

Know there are things beyond your control

You are just one person, and you weren’t meant to bear the world’s problems. Just do your best and be who you are, and realize that it isn’t your responsibility to fix every problem in society, Walfish says.

Woman sitting in a coffee shop smiling and talking on her phone.

Don’t leave guilt unresolved

If you’ve been harboring feelings of guilt from wronging someone, especially a parent or older relative, say something. You’ll feel better if you get those feelings out in the open, rather than feeling regret when it’s too late. And don’t miss these 14 science-backed ways to forgive.

Woman doing rope wave exercises at a gym.

Look forward, not back

Guilt is a feeling rooted in the past, and one way to overcome it is to focus on what you want for your future, Jackson says. Keep in mind your priorities and set some goals to improve your life,  then make a plan that will help you achieve what’s important to you. Moving forward is one of the best ways to avoid getting stuck in the past.

Woman in a blue shirt sitting at a desk writing in a journal.

Repeat a mantra

If you start feeling like you aren’t worthy of your success, hang a sign that says, “I deserve this” by your desk. If you start feeling like a fake for what you’ve achieved, repeat the saying 15 times and remember all the hard work that got you there. Find yourself feeling too guilty all the time? These are the 28 things you need to stop apologizing for

Excerpted from the book Stealth Health.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published on Reader's Digest