4 steps to break the cycle of guilt with Self-forgiveness

A lady in despair

Why do I feel guilt and shame?

We are fraught with guilt in ways we could never imagine; from the ever so gentle to the obvious, guilt is like a cancer that eats away at us, stealing our joy with our permission.  We see guilt as our sacrifice for something we should have suffered. Jason didn’t spend time with his father and when his father died he wondered if his dad would have been happier with Jason at his side. Sarah blames herself for her daughter who over dosed from drug use, if she had only paid more attention to Alexandra, maybe she would be alive today.

To overcome guilt we try to make amends, therapists, priests, friends hear about how we regret our actions and what we would do differently esa letterif given a second chance. Few people understand the full impact of guilt on the physical and mental well-being of a person and how guilt never allows us to truly start healing.

Guilt is not a good feeling; we do our best to avoid it and when we can’t get over it we bury the feeling or put the blame on others. But like other painful emotions, guilt is essential to our emotional growth. Sigmund Freud posits it is a signal that reflects a person has started taking responsibility for himself. You feel guilt when you believe you have not lived up to own values, this bleeds into shame and sometimes depression.

However, guilt is not all bad, it is the little twinge you feel when you’re about to do something you know you shouldn’t do. The purpose of guilt is to serve as a conscience and alert you when you do something that goes against your moral values. When you ignore the feeling of guilt, you feel shame for your actions.

Common reasons why you feel guilt and proactive measures you can take

  1. Not spending quality time with family and friends

Schedule time in your mobile calendar to call your parents and friends, no matter how busy you get. Create time at least twice a month to visit your parents if they live nearby, remember that you owe them your life and as they get older, all they want is to spend more time with you. Do as much as you can, while they are still here. Create time on the weekends for your friends, kids and partner however busy you are. It is important that you realise that family and friends will be there for you when the job crumbles and they stay with you long after you retire from your career.

  1. Binge eating and not maintaining a healthy diet

Shame, guilt and disgust are feelings associated with a bad food day, and we end up as own biggest critic which leads to self-loathing and depression. Such negative emotions affect your self-confidence, prevents digestions, eating disorders and creates body image issues. To deal with the problem always remember that change doesn’t happen overnight so you are bound to relapse once in a while. Guilt is good if it makes you accountable but bad when you judge yourself for it. Your self-worth isn’t dependent on food because food exists to nourish the body and mind not counting calories and punishing yourself when you overreach your daily intake goals.

  • The guilt of postpartum depression ( mommy guilt)

Most books on postpartum depression show that 15% of new mothers suffer from postpartum mood disorders including postpartum anxiety/OCD and postpartum psychosis. This is not a trivial mood swing but a scary situation mothers deal with on a daily basis. Affected mothers find themselves in depressive moods where they cry all the time, feel reluctant to see or hold their baby and in some extreme cases, physically harm themselves. The guilt of not feeling happy over the birth of your son, not wanting to hold him and asking yourself why you feel the way you do, is overwhelming and could you send you further down the pit of despair.

Don’t delay in getting help; talk to a doctor, counsellor or loved one, GET HELP… the longer it festers, the more toxic it becomes and in time you could become a danger to your loved ones and yourself. Some warning signs include

  • Recurrent thoughts of suicide
  • Lack of concern for yourself or pleasure from everyday activities
  • The fear of hurting your baby
  • Lack of interest in your child
  • Zero motivation to get out of bed
  • Poor appetite, loss of weight and longer hours of sleeping
  1. Guilt from holding on to anger

Chronic guilt is one of the heaviest burdens you carry because it drags you down and keeps you chained to the past. Sometimes people hurt us in the past, events so painful that we would rather not deal with it but bury it deep down to the recess of our mind. It could be a rape that went unpunished, a drunk driver who killed a loved one, the high school bully who made your life a living hell, the extremist homophobe who always made you feel like taking your own life or a parent who didn’t show us love when we were growing up. Whatever the case, these feelings become a malignant disease left untreated and because of the negative emotions, you feel when recalling the event, the guilt might swallow you completely when you realise you’re still bitter about the past.

Why dwelling in the past is bad for your health

After something stressful occurs, it feels nice to be able to leave it behind and move on; sometimes it's easy for some and for others, it takes more time. The feelings sometimes manifest in how we react during an argument, the volatile behaviour we express when angered and our defence mechanism to push or hurt others when they get too close. This is the internalized anger that causes our hormone and nervous system to react in neurotransmitter chemicals that affect our professional and personal relationships. Some of the associated health risks of chronic anger include

  • Increased heart rate
  • High blood pressure
  • Hiatus hernia
  • asthma
  • Stroke
  • Hives
  • Tense muscles
  • Shortened life expectancy
  • Ulcer

A lady and a flock of birds

6 steps to break the cycle of guilt

  1. Face your wrongs

If you remember that guilt and shame are a vicious cycle when you hide your wrongs or refuse to take responsibility for your actions. Own up to your mistakes, take responsibility where you’re wrong, face the situation head on and accept the consequences for your behaviour.


  • Write down what you know you have done wrong
  • Examine your values and how you went against them with your actions
  • Consider those you hurt, directly or indirectly
  • Ask yourself the hard question of why you went against your moral nature to commit the wrongful act
  • Reflect on how you could have handled it differently
  • Make a list of your values and examine where they come from; friends, children, parents, co-workers among others.

The result is for you to see how many people our actions affect and its ricochet effect. Work towards being less selfish as most of our actions are motivated by unhealthy personal gains. Process the wrong from your past and make a true effort to remember how it made you feel the next time you’re faced with a similar choice. This kind of processing makes us examine how important our value system is to us and the need to renew our belief in them if they’re going to guide our life actions.

  1. Ask for forgiveness

When we receive forgiveness from those we have offended, it goes a long way to relieve the guilt and blame. However, be mindful of trying to better yourself by asking forgiveness; this includes selfishly asking for pardon when you are fully aware that doing so would hurt the offended party. Sometimes our actions hurt others so deeply, they are not ready to deal with it or forgive the offender and its’ wrong to ask forgiveness where it won’t be freely given. This could also set you back several steps on the road to recovery as the feeling of guilt and shame doubles to send us spiralling into depression.


  • Open yourself, let them see you vulnerable and sorry. Before words leave your mouth, they should see your true intention from your body language and expression.
  • Talk to them about what actions; ensure you communicate why you believe you were wrong and what motivated your actions. Complete honesty is key.
  • Make a formal apology using words like “I apologize” or “I am sorry”. If they say you hurt them, follow up with “I apologizing for hurting you” or if your actions made them angry, you could say “I am sorry my actions made you angry”.
  • Find out if there is anything you could do to compensate for your actions and be prepared to follow on your promise
  • If they ask something you can’t do, be honest about your capabilities, especially when it goes against your belief system. True forgiveness is incomplete if you lose yourself trying to find it.
  1. Correct your wrongs

One exemplary way to show good faith is to make up for your wrong actions where possible. Some actions can’t be reversed but you can find ways to help someone you have hurt to alleviate the pain.


  • Think about those you have hurt and what you can do to fix the situation or make it hurt less
  • If you stole something, you could gift the person something of similar value, it could be anonymous if you don’t want to revisit past memories or dredge up old hurt.
  • Sometimes, where it isn’t possible to return what you stole, you could make a donation to a local charity they support or make it out in their name.
  • Where possible, offer to help them with yard work around the home or volunteer where they need help.

These are all actions that will make you feel better about yourself and gradually lift the burden of guilt you’ve been carrying around.

Motivational words

  1. Forgive yourself

This is the hardest step to follow as self-forgiveness is not always easy to accept even when the grieved party have pardoned us. You might find out that you still carry the guilt of your actions after practising the above steps and doing the exercises. You need to forgive yourself to exterminate all feelings of blame and guilt and complete the healing process.

Self-forgiveness is an empowering route that encourages you to accept your vulnerabilities as your strength. It's not escaping the darkness of your negative emotion but learning to love yourself in spite of it. It is the greatest tool to breaking free from the cycle of guilt and depression, for when you let go and reconcile with the past it holds no power over you and you find yourself feeling weightless and free.


  • Writing therapy is an exercise where you write about your past experience, the emotions you feel when you recall them, the details of the event, people who were hurt or how you were hurt by the event.
  • Talk to a therapist or a trusted loved one who won’t judge you but listen to you as you unload your feelings. Talking helps you understand that the event was in the past and it could stay there if you let go.
  • Write down what you need to forgive yourself for and burn the paper as a symbolic sign of self-forgiveness.
  • Use media tools and self-talk to remind you of the importance of letting go of the past.

Media tools to help you on the journey to self-forgiveness

Recommended video podcasts

Audio Podcasts

Connie Chapman’s Awaken radio podcast where you hear from experts and thought leaders share their raw, honest experiences on their transformative journey to unburdening themselves and learning to heal.

The Overwhelmed Brain podcast talks about guilt, shame, vulnerability and ridding your life of negatives that prevent you from moving forward.

Until you develop effective coping skills, you will revert to covering old hurts with a band aid. Face your feelings, ask for forgiveness and make restitution for your wrongs. The guilt and self-loathing will eventually be resolved if you stick to the new healthy methods you have developed to live a quality healthy life free of baggage and filled with happiness.