Guilt and Mental Illness: Feeling Guilty Is Overrated

May 3, 2012 Natasha Tracy

Everyone feels guilt sometimes but mental illness can make you feel extra guilt. It's important to know how to deal with, and let go of, guilt.

Guilt – noun – a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined.

And people with a mental illness feel guilt over a lot of things. I hear from people every day who feel guilty about their illness, what they’ve done, what they haven’t done and how their mental illness and their behaviors due to it affect others (Feeling Guilty Because You Have a Mental Illness).

But mostly I consider guilt a waste of time in mental illness recovery.

Guilt is a normal feeling. Presuming you’re not a sociopath, everyone feels guilt. It makes sense. We all make mistakes and we all feel bad about them. It’s just plain human.

But people with a mental illness may feel like they make a lot of mistakes in a lot more circumstances than your average person. People feel guilty just for having a mental illness let alone the things they do because of it. People don’t spend enough time with their kids because they sleep too much. People wrack up credit card bills in a fit of mania. People miss their anniversaries because they ended up in a mental hospital. Guilt. Guilt. Guilt. Guilt.

95% of Mental Illness Guilt Is a Waste of Time

But I would argue that all that guilt just eats into effort you should be putting elsewhere. All that guilt just chips away at your brain, your mind, your sanity and your happiness. All that guilt is just black poison set out to make you have a very bad day.

Now I’m not saying that people shouldn’t feel guilt at all – they should, after all, guilt keeps us in check morally, but sitting around and stewing on it? There are much better things to do with your time.

Mostly I feel like all the effort zapped by guilt should be used to make amends for whatever it is you feel guilty about in the first place.

And the thing to remember about guilt is that ruminating on your mental illness induced guilt can actually make your mental illness worse. In fact, guilt is actually a symptom of depression so the fact that you’re feeling it may not indicate that you did anything to feel guilty about at all.

Moving on from Guilt Despite Mental Illness

So the first thing to do when dealing with guilt is to look at it and consider whether it is reasonable. Are you really feeling guilty for something you actually had control over? Is this imagined guilt? Is this symptom guilt? If so, let it go. It’s not you talking. It’s your illness.

But assuming you’re feeling guilt over something real, consider whether the severity is reasonable. Should you really feel guilty enough to nail yourself on a cross? Probably not. Are you feeling an appropriate amount of guilt given the situation?

Now assuming that you’re feeling a reasonable amount of guilt for something reasonable consider this:

  • Guilt is poison and feeling it long-term won’t help you.
  • Guilt is poison and feeling it long-term won’t help others.
  • You can help others by being honest about your feelings and making amends.
  • Your time is much better spent dealing with the guilt rather than stewing on it.

Because guilt is just like anything else. You can deal with the rationally and reasonably if you just look at the emotion and deal with the situation. You don’t have to let it eat you alive.

And once you’ve felt the guilt, expressed it and made amends, let it go already. Talk back to the guilt. Tell it you’re not listening. Tell it it’s not reasonable. Tell it you’re bigger and better than it. Because you are.

And you deserve to feel better. You deserve to breathe without guilt. We all do.

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or GooglePlus or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter.

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2012, May 3). Guilt and Mental Illness: Feeling Guilty Is Overrated, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 17 from

Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate, and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar. She's also the host of the podcast Snap Out of It! The Mental Illness in the Workplace Podcast.

Natasha is also unveiling a new book, Bipolar Rules! Hacks to Live Successfully with Bipolar Disorder, mid-2024.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar BurbleX, InstagramFacebook, and YouTube.

April, 6 2017 at 11:05 pm

I hve BPD traist and my mental health has ruine dmy marriage. I feel an incredible amount of guilt. I feel guitlty because I have ruined an incredible loving marriage ,how I have mad emy wife feel and how our young daughter will cope . I am about to start therapy , and will continue it, even when I feel I am better. I hate myself for what I have done ...

February, 3 2016 at 5:02 pm

Great article! However, I think a definition of amends should have been explained and or defined. I know that for a long time I would feel guilty over my behaviour, actions and thoughts and thought just saying " i'm sorry" would make everything alright even when it was given sincerely. A good friend taught me that amends is a change in behavior....not just being sorry for it. Amends is replacing something that was broken or stolen. Amends is basically not engaging in the behaviour that made you feel guilty in the first place.

December, 8 2014 at 5:31 am

Your wife being consumed with guilt & allowing a sleazy attorney steal from you(taking advantage doesn't quite apply) are two very different things yet by allowing this ludicrousness to go that far begs many questions as to what is your 'delio'? Also can't you see that they feed into each other & reinforce NOT appeases her guilt as irrational as it is? The 2 examples you gave are very different but I don't know any spouse/partner etc that would not step in....after all this is an illness & 'appreciating her honesty' while remaining passive is not helping anyone. In fact I think you may be getting taken down with the 'whirlpool'. "Seems to be getting us in trouble" is an understatement. I'm new to this site but I am sure there are many resources available online. I would suggest having a discussion about rationable comparisons....basics that may help her start viewing things differently; coupled with assertiveness on your part. I wish you the best

March, 4 2014 at 9:28 am

Looking for help, -After our second child my wife became completely guilt ridden. She feels extreme guilt over every little thing from her past and feels the need to be 110% honest about everything.
I admire honesty yet her guilt and honesty are way beyond what I would consider normal. She is in therapy, but it has been about 2 years of therapy and it just doesn't seem to be going anywhere in my opinion. Yes, she has switched therapists and has seen about 3 or 4 different ones.
A few examples of her typical behavior:
1) We spent a week at a vacation rental a couple of years ago. Our youngest son broke a glass and plate on accident. I had told her to not worry about this as most vacation rental owners factor a certain amount of wear and tear in to the rate they charge. I didn't think a broken glass and plate was need to make a big deal over. My wife told me that although this was over a year ago it was still bothering her. I told her I was sorry that it was but we really have to move on and let this go. Well that wasn't enough. My wife found the phone number of the renter, called and explained what happened and offered to write a check for the broken plate and glass. The renter who happened to be a lawyer did not think this was a kind act on my wife's part and has asked that we also replace some cabinets, the wallpaper in the bathroom and several other items. I believe since this was so long ago it is impossible to prove anything yet her admission of guilt on the glass and plate has given this guy a field day to demand whatever he wants. Arggghh. :) Well my wife then started to question if we were responsible for all of these other things and felt bad and wants to write a check for everything.
Another quick example,
She was required to take a training course at work. Whe was to be paid for 4.0hrs of work for the 4hr course. The instructor let everyone go 1/2hr early as the course had finished early. My wife felt guilty about getting paid for 4hrs when in fact she only worked 3.5hrs at the training. She felt the need to tell her boss that everyone only did 3.5 hrs of training, not 4 and thus this created a difficult situation for the trainer and the other employees as her boss does not want to pay everyone for 4.0 hours when it was in fact 3.5.
..I appreciate her honesty, but question when if it is okay to be this honest? It seems to be getting us into trouble! Her honesty seems to be spurred by guilt.
Is there any recommended reading or known condition that she is dealing with? I also wonder if something has changed in her chemically since the second child was born?

February, 18 2014 at 11:07 am

Advice? Stacie, kick your mother to the curb. She can live elsewhere it's not her house. Why do you subject your husband to that vile woman? and you have it very easy if your only health problem is guilt. seriously some of us are completely disabled, physically and mentally and you just claim guilt for not wanting to look after your kids? Maybe look up "laziness"! Those of us with real mental and physical illness laugh at you!

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

May, 16 2017 at 2:07 pm

For the sake of future readers:
This comment is extremely inappropriate. Just because she didn't leave a DSM-V diagnosis in her plea for help does not mean that you can tell her that she is lazy. I hope Stacie never read this comment and that she was able to get some medical help.

July, 7 2013 at 10:56 am

What if a person with mental illness feels debilitating guilt because a person they live with means so much to them that they feel like they owe them their life, and that this person's happiness is the most important thing to them. The person with mental illness feels like if they haven't got the entire house clean or there are things that are not in their proper place the other person will be unhappy with them. Sometimes the guilt comes from not being able to do everything all the time because they are also afflicted with their other mental illnesses.
I have with emotional, psychological, mood, and personality disorders along with anxiety and guilt since I was a child. The people I live with now (my 2 boys, my husband, and my mom.) I am always anxious about the way my mom will react towards a variety of things when she walks through the door. The people in my life have never taken the time to educate themselves about my illnesses, and think I should just stop being the way I am. If it was so easy to get rid of guilt why has nothing worked? I believe that the reason I feel so anxious and guilty is because of the way my mom reacts to everything not being done. I am just so depressed that I can't even stand up. I also have guilt in the morning if I wake up and lie in bed, even if my husband tells me he will take care of the kids so I can relax. But the truth is I only have guilt when it comes to the my mother's mood, thoughts, and reaction to me not cleaning or playing with my kids, going everywhere she wants me to go with her, and if I say no, (which I barely do because of guilt) and she looks disappointed my whole day is going to be full of guilt, stress, depression, and anxiety. Sometimes the guilt is so extreme that I do all those things thaand being miserable doing it that I snap and we fight and argue. I also have guilt when it comes to my 3 year old and my 7 year old sons. I am so wound up with anxiety, and guilt along with not sleeping due to insomnia that every little thing they do wrong, or if they take to long, or don't eat, or ask for things, I snap and yell at them. I often think that they would be better off without me. My life has been consumed by constant guilt. I can honestly say that since the day I was conceived I have been miserable, I only remember 3 things in my life that made me happy and didn't end up with me feeling guilty for having it. I haven't bought anything for myself in 9 years, other than necessities because of the overwhelming guilt. I have not eaten in 5 days because I feel guilty eating food that I believe my family deserves more than I do. I know that we always have enough food for everyone but I still feel guilty. This is the worst part, I know I shouldn't feel this way but I can't help it. I just don't see how after 27 years of extreme debilitating guilt and anxiety will just go away by telling it to. Is it possible that in some cases it is just impossible to stop it?
Please give me any advice you can and if you need more information about me
Or everything and anything concerning my story just email me.

Dr Musli Ferati
May, 9 2012 at 1:33 am

The sense of guilty touch everybody, except person with disocial personality disorder, as You named as sociopath. This overwhelming emotional feeling in persons with mental illness, lead to an unpleasant course of mental disorder with many bad repercussion for the definitive outcome of respective mental illness. With this undesirable feeling are included the close relatives of mentally ill person, that fulfil on the destructive circle of mental illness. Therefore,it ought to manage in appropriate manner the feeling of guilty, instead to blame oneself or the close relatives for mistakes that happened by gone time. In this direction, the statement that mental disorders aren't the consequences of life mistakes but the result of brain disorder, that may treated by current psychiatric treatment, indicates as guidelines to soften the sense of guilty.

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