How to Overcome Pathological Guilt

Pathological guilt can unbalance you. In fact, it's like an open wound, an injury to your psychic system that affects your well-being. We're going to give you some guidelines to avoid this damaging feeling.
How to Overcome Pathological Guilt
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 07 May, 2023

Do you think you’re free in acting the way you do? In reality, your behaviors are often motivated by energies that your consciousness doesn’t even consider, and that are far from being rational. These are forces that produce the impulse or motivation you need to act. This happens with pathological guilt. It’s a feeling that can bind you to harmful relationships or turn your own judgment into your worst enemy.

If you suffer from pathological guilt, you’ll probably live with the constant idea that you must behave in a certain way, that you have debts to settle, and that your mistakes deserve punishment. Perhaps, on a logical and rational level, you understand that this isn’t the case, but something inside you urges you to sacrifice and punish yourself, apologize excessively, and feel that you’re never good enough.

If all of this sounds familiar to you, read on. You’ll learn what’s going on and what you can do about it.

Guilty woman sitting on sofa
When guilt is disproportionate and appears frequently and intensely, it’s pathological.

Pathological guilt

Guilt is known as a self-conscious emotion, along with shame and pride. These three emotions have some particular characteristics that you need to know about. Firstly, they arise from your awareness about yourself as an individual being, as differentiated from others and your environment. In fact, without this conception, guilt doesn’t arise. That’s why guilt doesn’t appear until approximately two years of age.

Furthermore, guilt is a complex emotion with a strong cultural component. It’s not innate like primary emotions. It derives from the development of a series of cognitive abilities and from social interactions with others. Guilt appears or intensifies when you understand that your actions have consequences for those with whom you relate. Consequently, it regulates your behavior.

To a certain extent, guilt is necessary and adaptive. After all, it tells you what to do and what not to do if you want to live harmoniously in society. However, your guilt becomes pathological if it acquires the following parameters:

  • It appears with excessive frequency, and in events or situations in which it shouldn’t occur. Remember, it’s simply not possible for you to do everything wrong. Therefore, if this feeling arises, it should be a warning sign that you need to work on your guilt.
  • It’s disproportionate. Your discomfort is intense and prolonged. Consequently, you banish any pity, compassion, or even simple justice from the judgments you make about yourself.
  • It loses its usefulness. As a rule, guilt serves as a guide to detecting social errors so you can remedy them. But, pathological guilt paralyzes you. Instead of allowing you to make up for any damage, it only leads you to suffer and feel emotionally crushed. Therefore, it doesn’t fulfill its function.

Why does pathological guilt develop?

There are several factors that might lead you to develop pathological guilt.

It often starts with our parents’ behavior and style of parenting. Indeed, if you suffer from pathological guilt you may well have grown up with narcissistic, manipulative, or extremely critical parents. Furthermore, since guilt is a moral emotion, your culture, religion, and schools can also influence this feeling due to the guidelines they instilled in you.

Getting rid of pathological guilt

If you’re suffering from this unpleasant and limiting emotion, you must identify it and work on reducing its impact on your life. Here are some guidelines to help.

Check your powers of responsibility

Pathological guilt arises because you tend to dump the responsibility for a situation on yourself when it’s probably not the case at all. One way of combating this is to take a moment and think about all the people and events involved in the situation and the degree of influence of each one. By doing so, you’ll see that your involvement and responsibility are less than you imagined or, at least, shared.

For example, a battered woman may feel guilty about her situation for ‘angering her partner’ or for staying by their side. Yet, when they analyze the facts, they realize that the person responsible is their partner, for mistreating them.

Consider your needs

If you suffer from pathological guilt, in order to avoid being judged or rejected by others, you’ll tend to go out of your way for them. This implies ignoring your own preferences to satisfy the desires of others. If you don’t do this, you feel selfish and believe they’ll brand you as a bad person.

It’s a good idea to learn to differentiate between your wants and needs. Moreover, you must understand that you matter too. If someone asks you for a favor derived from need, help them, by all means. However, if their desire goes against your own needs, you must prioritize yourself.

This will help you balance the scales and start thinking of yourself. You’ll also reach a point from which you can set boundaries assertively.

Remember that you’re not responsible for others

Pathological guilt frequently manifests itself in an uncontrollable impulse to solve the problems of others. If you’re experiencing this emotion, when someone around you has the smallest of complaints or is unhappy with a certain situation, you look for a way of solving their problem. But, it’s not your problem.

This can lead you to make decisions or offers that you later regret. That’s because they didn’t come from a genuine desire to help, but from an impulse motivated by the fear of not being good enough.

You need to remember that you’re not responsible for other people, their circumstances, or their daily challenges. They’re adults and can take charge of their problems themselves. You mustn’t take them on, especially since such impulsive acts won’t even be appreciated or rewarded later. After all, they didn’t ask for your help. So, you’ll only end up feeling used and resentful.

Accept your right to make mistakes

To overcome the invasive feeling of pathological guilt, you must understand that we all make mistakes and that we have the right to do so.

Understanding this reality will help you not to be so self-demanding or self-critical. On the contrary, you’ll be more compassionate with yourself. In addition, you won’t be so defensive or sensitive to the comments or criticisms of others. In fact, you’ll understand how to take them as an opportunity for improvement and not as a personal attack on you.

Change your internal dialogue

Finally, watch your beliefs and how you speak to yourself, as this can either reduce or fuel pathological guilt. Remember that every emotion stems from a particular thought. Therefore, a change in perspective can alter how you feel.

For this reason, it’s a good idea to select a series of phrases to protect you when guilt threatens to contaminate your entire thought system. For example, tell yourself “I have the right to prioritize myself”, “I can learn from this and do better next time” or “Sacrificing too much won’t make me a better person”.

worried woman thinking
Pathological guilt is usually worked on in psychological therapy.

Professional assistance to help combat pathological guilt

Pathological guilt is usually deeply rooted and comprised of learning derived from childhood. Therefore, it isn’t always easy to eliminate.

If you feel that this emotion is limiting you and causing you suffering, seek professional assistance. A psychologist or therapist will help you identify and understand your behavior patterns and propose an appropriate intervention.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Echeburúa Odriozola, E., de Corral Gargallo, P., & Amor, P. J. (2001). Estrategias de afrontamiento ante los sentimientos de culpa. Análisis y modificación de conducta.
  • Etxebarria, I. (2003). Las emociones autoconscientes: culpa, vergüenza y orgullo. EG Fernández-Abascal, MP Jiménez y MD Martín (Coor.). Motivación y emoción. La adaptación humana, 369-393.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.