Understanding Guilt

People often come to therapy to talk about what bad people they are and describe the horrible things they’ve done. Their language is often extremely pathologizing, and they spend time beating themselves up. They are filled with shame and believe that their past actions will define who they are forever.

A good therapist listens without judgment and helps their client see that they are more than their past experiences. We are so much more than our behavior. To help my clients see past their worst moments, I like to define the differences between healthy guilt, shame, and neurotic guilt. 

Healthy guilt

When we experience healthy guilt, we are essentially saying, “okay, I messed up. I violated a value, overstepped a boundary, and entered a space I consider to be wrong. I am not happy with this behavior, so I need to take some steps to self-correct.” 

When we feel healthy guilt, we recognize our behavior is hurtful to ourselves and others, and we have the self-esteem to take steps to change our behavior. We don’t beat ourselves up but instead focus on how to be better in the future.


Shame is not helpful. Shame leaves us stuck believing that we have no control over our lives and that the results are foregone conclusions. Shame is a form of self-hate that leaves us powerless to act because what’s the point of trying if you are inherently bad. 

Neurotic guilt

There is another form of guilt that’s not as debilitating as shame but also a problem. I call it neurotic guilt. This form of guilt can be easily confused with the more productive healthy guilt because we feel that we failed or violated one of our values. 

For example, if my husband wants me to go out with him on a Friday night when I am completely drained from my week at work, and I say no, but sit home the whole night feeling guilty about it, that is neurotic guilt. I don’t feel entitled to say no to take care of myself, and I’m uncomfortable risking his disapproval. This is a symptom of being a people-pleaser. If we put others’  needs above our own, we don’t set ourselves up for success. But it’s not better to take care of our needs and then feel guilty about doing so. That’s neurotic guilt, which creates space for resentment to creep into your relationship.

I advise people to treat themselves gently, take good care of themselves, and stop beating themselves up for their behavior.

Treating ourselves the way we would treat our best friend can help us get perspective. We would never use the pathologizing language with our friends that we do with ourselves. We wouldn’t judge our friends as harshly as we do ourselves. We usually believe our friends to be good people who make mistakes. Why can’t we see ourselves in such a forgiving light?

If you are stuck in a self-hate or a people-pleasing mentality and find it difficult to change your behavior, consider therapy to help you get beyond what’s holding you back.  A good therapist can teach you to recognize the difference between shame, neurotic guilt, and healthy guilt and help you make better sense of your behaviors.

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barbi pecenco lmft

Barbi Pecenco, LMFT

A Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist  with over 15 years of experience, Barbi works with individuals to help resolve issues that have them feeling stuck in life. She’s based in Newport Beach, California. Learn more about Barbi >

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