Dealing with Feelings of Guilt and Shame When You're Depressed
Feelings of guilt and shame can be intense when we are depressed. Our perception of the past becomes skewed and these guilty and shameful feelings can become such a burden that we feel overwhelmed, unable to see realistically. I’ve spent some time contemplating why we, who battle depression, often feel overwhelmed with feelings of guilt and shame and what we can do about it.
To paraphrase Brene Brown, guilt is about our behavior; shame is about ourselves. Guilt says, “I did something bad.” Shame says, “I am bad.”1
It’s okay to feel guilty when we’ve truly done something that violates our code of ethics. After recognizing and exploring this feeling of guilt, we can make amends by apologizing and correcting our behavior. In this sense, we should welcome guilt.
Excessive Feelings of Guilt and Shame Are Often a Part of Depression
It’s when guilt becomes excessive or is not based on something we actually did wrong that we can get ourselves into trouble. Multiple times a day, I will feel guilty about dumb things I’ve done in my past. I’ll recall a random conversation from seven years ago where I hurt someone’s feelings or I’ll remember a stupid thing I did in the fourth grade. I’ll sometimes even feel guilty for the behaviors of others, thinking I should have stopped them from their wrongdoings.
When I’m feeling more depressed, and because of my obsessive thoughts, I will ruminate on those past events and the constant dwelling will turn my excessive guilty thoughts to thoughts of shame. I become immobilized, and my day is completely thrown off (Getting Through a Day Paralyzed by Anxiety and Depression). This, in turn, leads to more negative thinking and, soon, I’ve spiraled deeper into the pit of depression.
Three Ways to Reduce Feelings of Guilt and Shame
- Recognize feelings of guilt and shame are counter-productive. If you’re feeling unreasonably guilty or full of shame, recognize that this is not productive. Remind yourself that you’re being overly self-critical. Be aware of the fact that, because of your depression, your thinking is skewed. No one deserves to feel plagued by guilt and shame, and this thinking will only make things worse.
- Learn to forgive and accept imperfection. This one is so difficult for me, but one I’m trying to work on. I tell myself that I can continue to feel guilty about every mistake I’ve ever made in my life, or I can choose acceptance and forgiveness. I can embrace imperfection. With my obsessive thinking, the memories of past mistakes will still intrude, but I’m now trying to accept that, because I’m human, I will never be perfect., and that’s okay.
- Use mindfulness to disengage with your feelings of guilt and shame. Because of my obsessive thinking, I’ve learned that it’s helpful when I stop engaging with these thoughts completely and instead use mindfulness to help with depression. While the memories will still come, I try to recognize that I’m thinking them, verbally say “breathe," return to my breath, and shift my focus to what I’m doing at the moment.
Excessive feelings of guilt and shame can be detrimental to your mental health. If you’ve tried to overcome feelings of excessive guilt and shame, and are unable to do so on your own, please seek help from a trusted professional.
- TED: Ideas Worth Sharing. Brown, Brene. Listening to Shame.
Sedas, M. (2018, February 1). Dealing with Feelings of Guilt and Shame When You're Depressed, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, December 4 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/copingwithdepression/2018/02/when-feelings-of-guilt-and-shame-overwhelm-you-when-depressed
Author: Michelle Sedas
I have such empathy for all. I all of sudden recall this traumatizing memory.. I was a lustful young boy and engaged in young boy streaking and experimental touching and kissing with other boys. I feel like I was abused but can't recall an actual event. I say this because I knew too much at such a very early age 7. I have one horrible memory of thinking how I might convince a younger boy to play with me like I saw in this hard core porno magazine i found at a construction site we all played at. Although it was only a thought it has now manifested into my conviction of me being this vile man. This has never happen since then but recent PTSD and has become my obsessive shame and guilt from when I was 12 yo. Just the thought or sent me running away back then and that thought never happened again. but as a 50 plus husband and father...im plagued by this guilt shame and disgust. Im thankful nothing happened but can't forgive my self for ever thinking this act up.
When I was a student many years ago, a few of us laid our hands on some items of women's clothing. We then went driving around the city in the early hours looking for a homeless guy of the right build. We finally found one - he didn't stand a chance. We stripped him then put him into women's clothes. When we were done, we burned his old clothes in front of him. To this day I can still see the look of horror on his face as he stood there in his new blouse and pencil skirt, realising that his only options were crossdress or go naked. I've no idea what happened to him - we just drove off, laughing hysterically, and left him to get on with it. I have no idea what happened to him or how he coped. The guilt over doing this awful thing has eaten away at me for years.
That was a horrible thing to do to another human being....even made worse because that human being was especially vulnerable. But it sounds like you are truly sorry and have a lot of regret about it. We are all on this message board because we have regrets and want to find an avenue for self redemption and inner peace. I have also made terrible mistakes, have treated others terribly and without the dignity that every human deserves. One way I am working through it is to find out how I can help those in communities that I have treated badly. One suggestion I have for you is to go and volunteer on your days off working with the homeless community. There are so many types of opportunities for helping such as food banks, homeless shelters, fundraising drives, etc. To give back might help ease your pain and the more you volunteer you might even stop seeing that look of horror on his face and start seeing a smile of thanks. I hope the best for you and thank you for sharing your story.
I can't sleep, eat or focus because of the tiny things i did or the really big ones. I can't stop obssesing about them. Constantly beating myself up for the things i did and should have done.i feel like i am being eaten whole by this but can't show it to anyone thus i am left to wallow in my misery.
Hello, Passer. I am sorry that you are going through this. This is something many of us who have depression deal with. The thing that really helped me with this issue was therapy. I learned healthy coping skills and techniques for dealing with these recurring intrusive thoughts. Now I'm able to put these thoughts out of my mind. Now when they come, I'm able to simply say, "Nope. Done." This took a great deal of work with my therapist and many steps to get to this point. I highly encourage you to consider therapy as an option. You are not alone in your struggle. Thank you for reaching out here. I want you to know there are brighter days ahead.
I try to be a good family person. I often feel like a failure as I am not good at many things. My spouse says that she doesn't feel connected to me because I am irritable. I am sad all the time. I love my wife and my children and want to feel joy. I don't know why I am having a hard time experiencing positive emotions. I know exercising is supposed to be helpful but I am always so exhauset.
Hello, Mike. Thank you for commenting. I'm Jennifer, the current author of the Coping With Depression Blog. I am sorry that you are feeling down and going through a hard time. I can certainly identify with your feelings of failure and inability to feel positive emotions as well as your feeling of exhaustion. My first suggestion is for you to speak with your healthcare provider. There are a few possibilities of things that could be going on. Secondly, you and your family should try taking walks together. This would allow you to get in some mild to moderate exercise while also spending time with your wife and children. Let us know how things go.
I cant forgive myself for animals that suffered or died because of me. ME. I know now what goes around comes around. God is punishing me for all the bad i did n the pain is unbearable as i cant bring the dead things back n say im sorry... i don’t understand why i was so evil.. im not now but its too late. If anyone goes to Heaven, tell John and amthe calf n Joe im so so sorry and Im suffering and deserve to. Nobody can stop this. I deserve all im feeling. Iwas selfish and a bitch. Im so so sorry to everybody n everything ive hurt. I will not ask for forgiveness as ido not deserve it. Ive never felt such utter pain and i think soon my life will end because if what i did. Whoever reads this please help me find a way to say sorry. I let a puppy die over 20 years ago as i was so ill with pregnancy but hated him n shut him away although he was fed n had a long lead i never once held him n kissed him n the pain i feel weiting this . I cant go on writing
It sounds as if you are feeling overwhelmingly burdened by events from the past. I'm sorry you are feeling this way. Please remember that we all make mistakes and do things we wish we could change. Please be kind to yourself and let go of this burden of 20 years. It's a very long time to hold on to something. I hope your heart can find peace.
I know what you are going through. I did a very evil thing, that I can't even bring myself to describe. Every single day it tortures me and I also know that an apology means zilch. What was I thinking? Is that really me? How can I go on now? I am not a whole person anymore , I deserve my loneliness and my pitiful being. I deserve zero love from anyone and just knowing that makes me realize that I do nothing but waste space. I'm sorry ,to bother you,I have nothing positive to say.
Hello, Steven. I'm Jennifer, one of the current authors of the Coping With Depression blog. I want to encourage you that apologies do matter. You can tell someone that you are sorry. That is doing your part. Whether or not that person accepts the apology is out of your hands. I assure you that you are a whole person. You do not deserve to be lonely, and you are not wasted space. I encourage you to speak with a healthcare provider about how you are feeling about yourself. Brighter days are ahead. Don't give up.
Yes! Thanks for a very good post! Guilt and shame are so destructive!
Thank you so much for your comment.
Co-author "Coping with Depression" blog
Guilt and shame are definitely a waste of time and counterproductive. Not easy to rid of though. Mindfulness helps only if you allow it in and rid of the negativity. Exercise is a must. Exercise helps clear the mind. The more I jog the better I feel. Negativity, anxiety, and depression have a harder time settling in when I exercise. When I don't it comes in very strong. Very strong.
This is an excellent point! Exercise does always seem to help. I haven’t been exercising as much lately, and I need to. Thank you for the reminder!