In the last few weeks, we’ve been talking a lot about stress. How to recognize if you’re stressed. The physical effects of stress. Stress management practices. Even how to restructure your thoughts. Today, we are taking a look at a specific emotion that ties into stress: guilt. Many of us are unaware of how this emotion affects our lives and enables mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. So, sit back and let’s dive into the facets of this complex emotion and begin stepping away from guilt.

Guilt is Actually a Good Thing

Guilt is an emotion that gets a bad rap. But feeling guilty can be a good thing. Guilt is a warning sign that something is wrong. It’s a part of our conscience and we need it in order to function in our society. Think of guilt as a way to course correct, learn from our mistakes, and be better in the future. Guilt helps us become more trustworthy and can add to our ability to be humble as we continue to grow.

“Unreal Guilt”

Especially in regard to a phenomenon that psychologists are calling “unreal guilt”. Unreal guilt stems from anxiety and manifests those icky feelings in situations in which we have a hard time coping. You may not have punched someone, broke their laptop or stolen their jacket. “Most of our guilt is a result not of fear but anxiety,” said Lucy Freeman and Herbert Strean in Guilt: Letting Go. “No one menaces your life when you feel anxious. There is only ephemeral danger, one that does not exist in the real world but in your fantasy.”

Unlike “real guilt”, unreal guilt isn’t very helpful in course correcting our behavior. In fact, it inflicts our lives with stress, anxiety, and agony. This kind of guilt may feel like it’s coming from your internal moral compass, however, it doesn’t actually stem from there. Instead, it’s made up of constant inner monologues of what we “should” or “should not” do. Unreal guilt keeps us in the past, upset about a decision or course of action that was taken (or not taken). And it does not allow us to learn from it and move forward.

Stepping Away from Guilt

If you are someone who identifies as holding a lot of unreal guilt, there are a few things you can do to begin stepping away from that stressor.

Dive into the Feelings

 Yes, this will not feel pleasant at first. Guilt is a major source of stress. But it is important to explore those feelings of guilt. Ask yourself these questions:


What am I feeling guilty about?

Why am I feeling guilty?

What is the underlying reason for my guilt?

What do I gain by feeling guilty?

Does this make any sense?

How does this guilt hold me back?

How does this guilt effect those around me?

Is it reasonable to feel guilty about this?

There’s a chance that feeling guilty about your specific situation doesn’t make the most logical sense. While your emotions are strong and make sense, what happens when those emotions are removed? Are you able to look at the situation a bit more objectively? And perhaps realize guilt isn’t an appropriate reaction?

Take a Step Back from the Situation

 It is also important to take a deep dive into the events that triggered the guilt in the first place. Answer these questions:

What happened?

How did I respond to these events?

What do I believe about this situation?

 Before you can learn and grow, you have to get clear on the events leading up to the feelings of guilt. The more information you can gather, the more equipped to deal with your feelings you can be. Gaining understanding and clarity is extremely important in figuring out how you need to move through your guilt and ultimately dismiss it.

Take Advice from Timon

Let’s take a note from one of our favorite original Disney movies, The Lion King. When Simba runs away from Pride Rock, he’s drowning in feelings of guilt. Timon tells him, “You got to put your past behind you”. And he is right. We have to accept that things done in the past cannot be changed. No matter how guilty or terrible you feel, you will not suddenly gain the power of time travel in order to do things differently.

We have to be accountable and take responsibility for our mistakes. The next time you feel guilty, say the mantra, “This is how I’m feeling, and I accept it”. Accept the guilt. Don’t deny it. Nor should you resist it. It’s what you are feeling, and you are feeling it for a reason. We have to be completely honest with ourselves in order to move forward in our lives.

Take Your Control Back

As we just discussed, we cannot change the past. But we can use the past to influence our future. Just as it was important to identify those lead-up events, it’s also important to recognize what you are able to control:

Looking at this situation, what’s within my control?

What is somewhat within my control?

What could I potentially influence in some way?

 There are things you are always able to control. There are things you have partial control over. And there are things you cannot control whatsoever. Taking these things into consideration can help you create a plan of action to help improve your situation. It’s crucial to take at least one positive step forward. Again, we cannot change the past, but we can make things better in the present moment. We just have to deliberately make that choice.

Forgive Yourself and Learn from the Experience

Repeat after me:

I am only human.

I am not perfect.

And I am going to and continue going to make mistakes.

But those mistakes do not take away my self-worth or value.

 We are not always going to make the right decisions. And we are not always going to say the right things. Mistakes are a part of life, but more importantly, a part of growth. They aid in our development process and help us evolve into the best people we can be. Embrace the mistakes you make, learn from them, and forgive yourself for making them. As long as you take the time to learn from the experience you will do better the next time around.

Stepping Away from Guilt with CPA

Life is going to continually throw us obstacles. What matters most is not what comes our way, but how we cope with it. The next time a challenge comes your way, reflect on this information and recognize if you fall into patterns of “unreal guilt”. We know you need a toolbox full of skills in order to cope with the challenges that life throws at us and begin to reduce chronic stress. At CPA, we will always encourage patients to explore coping mechanisms that work best for them. However, we also know that a number of those skills come from counseling and different methods of therapy.

Cristina Panaccione and Associates has two locations in the South Hills and one office in Robinson Township. We are currently accepting a limited number of new patients, so check out our videos to learn more about our counseling services can help teach you the skills to cope with guilt and stress management.


* This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Please contact a medical professional for advice.

Scott Cunningham

For the past 20 years, Scott has been providing a safe and supportive environment where people feel comfortable talking about their depression, fears, stresses, and hopes for life. Having a collaborative relationship with clients is important to him. Scott brings hope and knowledge into his sessions and provides psycho-education to aid in the effectiveness of therapy. He works with clients coping with issues such as, but not limited to anxiety, trauma, depression, partner-relational issues & phase of life transitions. My experience entails couples, adolescent, family and adult counseling. He is certified in Chemical Dependency Counseling, ASIST Suicide Intervention, Crisis Intervention Stress Management, and Comprehensive Crisis Management. He has earned his Master’s Degree in Counseling Education from the University of Pittsburgh and a Bachelor’s of Science in Christian Counseling from Fort Wayne Bible College.

Scott’s goal is to help people struggling with trauma to regain stability and strength as well as insight into their issues. He believes that everyone has an innate ability to grow and learn. He enjoys helping people accomplish that goal and live better and more productive lives.