Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Irrational Guilt: How to Put It to Rest

Not all guilt is created equally.

Jake went to play golf last weekend but he almost didn’t. He felt guilty about eating up a Saturday when he thought he should be home with his kids. Even days later he had mixed feelings about going, though part of him realized that it wasn’t a big deal, and his kids said that actually had a good day hanging with their friends. But he can’t let it go.

Ann has been thinking about separating from her husband for some time. But what stops her in her tracks is that she is afraid she will be haunted with guilt—that maybe she should have tried harder to work things out, and that if something bad happens to her husband as a result she will never forgive herself.

Ugh, guilt. That wagging finger in our heads, that pang that we did something wrong; we ruminate with regrets and what-ifs and can’t things let go. But not all guilt is created equally. There’s irrational and rational guilt, and it helps to know the difference. Here’s how they break down:

Irrational Guilt

Irrational guilt is based on shoulds—rules that are not really our own. It is often about over-responsibility, underlying anxiety, or a little-kid belief that "I can only be happy if you’re happy."

Jake feels that in order to be a good father, he should spend every weekend at home with his kids. Ann has anticipatory guilt that she should do more before she can leave and that the rightness of her decision somehow hangs on how well her husband is after. The operative word here is should, a clue that these thoughts are imported without reflection.

But what also characterizes irrational guilt is irrational thinking, specifically about consequences. Behind Jake’s parenting notions is some fear that his golf time and absence on a Saturday will hurt his children in some irreparable way, just as Ann worries that her husband may bottom out even though she doesn’t have any rational reason to believe this is likely to happen.

Finally, irrational guilt tends to linger and nag regardless of what you do. Even though Jake knows that his kids had a good weekend, his mind doesn’t settle. HIs irrational guilt would likely make him worry that he wasn't being attentive enough even if he was there. Similarly, we could expect Ann’s guilt would nag at her no matter what she tried to do to fix the relationship, and could possibly let up only if she were guaranteed that her husband would have a happy life till the end of his days.

Rational Guilt

Rational guilt is a different animal. Instead of violating some imposed rule, rational guilt comes from violating our own self-initiated and grounded values. Instead of coming out of our anxious, little-kid brain, it comes from our adult one. Instead of the irrational guilt built around our making or not making someone happy, rational guilt comes from our not living up to our own integrity and standards, our own moral code. With rational guilt, we are not plagued by irrational fears about the consequences of our actions or obsessed about outcomes because our decisions and actions are dependent on our values and are independent of what happens next.

Finally, when we listen to our conscience and follow our values, everything settles. There are no nagging pangs, no building up of resentment, no martyrdom, and no expectation of how others should appreciate what we're doing. We feel at peace with ourselves because we simply did what we in our hearts needed to do.

So how do we sort this all out when guilt begins to stir within us? Here are some guidelines:

  • Look out for shoulds. When you find yourself talking to yourself in that way, mentally raise an eyebrow and ask yourself where this may be coming from. Parents, societal expectations? What/where outside yourself?
  • Look for anxiety about the reactions of others, consequences, and possible outcomes. If your rational brain knows that your fears are irrational, if the guilt hangs on how things turn out, it’s a good sign that all this is not coming from your adult core.
  • Define your own values and stance. Step back and reflect on what you believe in your gut, your heart. Jake thinks about his own values and visions of being a father. Ann decides for herself her definition of commitment and its boundaries, or about her happiness versus that of others, or recognizes the limits of her own control and responsibility. This is not about creating rationalizations but defining for yourself what it is you truly believe.
  • Take action. Act on your values. Do you feel more settled? Even proud? A good sign. If not, have you fallen short of your values in some way? Are you back to little-kid anxiety about outcomes and everyone needing to be happy?
  • Label irrational guilt as irrational guilt. Calling it what it is helps put some distance between you and these guilty feelings. It also helps you mentally separate out your past and little-kid feelings from present adult ones. This labeling will help dampen the little-kid anxiety that may get stirred in your first attempts to go against the “rules” in your head.
  • Pat yourself on your back. By rationally and reflectively sorting through your values and visions, stepping up, and proactively acting on them, you literally will begin to rewire your brain and move away from your guilt-infused past. Time to applaud your bold action.

So are you ready to give up irrational guilt? Are you ready to follow your own values...for a change?