May 18


​Getting a Grip on Guilt

Guilt, self-depreciation, and shame are an integral part of depression. Whether they are the cause or a by-product is not known. A combination of both life experience and biochemistry help explain why some people constantly put themselves on trial.

Guilt and Shame

Early experience of:

Creates a mindset of:

Abandonment or massive rejection

Being given too much responsibility

Constant criticism

Being told not to feel a certain way

Being blamed for others’ problems/ feelings

Repeatedly having your needs put aside

A family trauma: divorce, illness, abuse

Having a family where little goes wrong


An underreactive temperament

The sluggish biochemistry of depression

“I’m defective, bad, or unlovable.”

“I’m responsible (for things I can’t control).”

“I don’t do enough.” “I have to be perfect.”

“My feelings are wrong.”

“I have to keep people happy.”

“Others’ feelings come before my own.”

“I’m responsible (for things I don’t cause).”

“I can prevent bad things from happening.”

Leads to:

Introspection and excessive self-

Difficulty responding to new information

 If I don’t retaliate or defend myself, I’m weak, a loser, etc.

 My power comes from understanding others, not from being understood.


If you are predisposed by life experience or biochemistry to self-
condemnation, it is easy to have a false or disproportionate sense of responsibility for anything that goes wrong. You may magnify what you’ve done, take personal responsibility for everything that goes wrong, “should yourself” instead of understand yourself, and unrealistically expect yourself to only have positive feelings. Rarely is an undesirable state of affairs all one person’s fault or as bad as it seems at the moment. Make your introspection work for you by reexamining your “wrongdoings” and putting them in perspective.


Directions: Identify something you feel bad about. Determine a percentage for your intention of causing the event, your contribution to it, the amount of control you had over it and the degree to which it was bad. Get a second opinion on all your ratings in case you have not yet learned that guilt comes in shades of gray.

I feel bad about:

Some people seem to prefer to condemn themselves rather than place responsibility where it is due. Just recognizing what you are doing is the first step of change. Decide if you are guilty of the following false guilt payoffs:


Most people don’t learn to skate without falling, and it is impossible to go through life without making blunders. It is proper to feel remorse when you have unnecessarily or willfully acted in a hurtful manner toward yourself or another person in a way that violates your standards.2 However, no matter how bad your transgression, you are not innately bad or evil. Good people do wrong things! The very fact that you feel regret means you have a conscience. It is better to take one or more of the following actions to relieve your distress than to wallow in “poor-awful-me-ism”:

Most people feel either too much or too little guilt. The chronically guilty take responsible for everything bad that has ever happened to them or their loved ones. The forever innocent do not hold themselves accountable for the bad consequences of their actions or how they respond to others’ blunders. It is easier to tone down a sense of overresponsibility than to build one in people who have little. However, by owning your part of a problem and only your part, you model how to make amends and make it more difficult for others to shift blame.


See “Cognitive Dissonance” in Breaking the Patterns of Depression by Michael Yapko (Doubleday, 1997), p. 224.

See “Guilt” in Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David Burns (Avon Books, 1980), p. 199.

Subscribe to our newsletter now!