Depression and guilt go together like apple pie and ice cream…but while many people choose to indulge in the latter, nobody chooses to feel depressed or guilty.
But as unappetizing as it is, you can deal with the guilt that often goes along with depression.
Before we dive into those tips, let’s start at the beginning.
Many people with depression feel ashamed or embarrassed to reach out for help, wondering things like, “Why aren’t I happy?” and “What’s wrong with me?” And once you ponder questions such as these for long enough, an enormous wave of guilt forms, so strong it almost knocks you off your feet.
You probably know exactly how that feels, right?
Maybe it’s guilt that you feel this way, guilt for trying to parent through the depression, guilt for needing extra support and love. Guilt is a typical and common symptom of depression. And whatever you feel guilt about is perfectly normal, valid, and okay.
It can be tough to struggle with depressive-driven guilt, and it can be challenging to be a support person for someone in the thick of depression. Depression is a severe mental illness that is very difficult to live with. As someone who struggles personally, I believe the more tips we can learn, the better.
In this article, we’ll provide some tips for dealing with excessive guilt, show you how it’s connected to depression, what it looks like in real life, how to recognize triggers, and how to cope.
Some of these tips might work for you, while others you might skip over. That’s totally okay! Take what you can and try the tips that feel right to you.
Let’s first focus on how guilt and depression are related, and then we’ll get into finding healthy ways to cope and even thrive.
1. Understand the relationship between guilt and depression.
The relationship between guilt and depression is an ever-winding path. People can feel guilty for being depressed, wonder why they’re depressed, and then feel guilty for that. It can often go around and around.
It’s quite common to invalidate your depression because of the age-old “pain-Olympics” and “someone else has it worse.” The guilt can begin with simple messages like this.
The first thing to mention and understand is that depression is a treatable, common but serious medical condition. It’s not something you have because you made the wrong turn in life. It’s something that happens because of a chemical imbalance in the brain. Treating the chemical and emotional imbalance often eliminates the excessive guilt symptom, or at least eases it to a point where one can cope.
Because guilt is a moral emotion, it tends to be irrational and difficult to control. Guilt feeds off depression, and depression feeds off guilt, and together they can become quite the horror. It’s hard to feel good when you’re weighed down with guilt, and then even IF you get to feeling good, it’s hard not to feel the guilt heading in then too.
Basically, guilt and depression go together hand in hand. Learning to recognize the symptoms of one will help you to manage the symptoms of the other.
The first way to start dealing with excessive guilt is to understand why you feel it, how it’s related to your depression, and acknowledge that it’s there. Because things are much easier to manage and cope with when we can understand them. A better understanding of this relationship can help you to stay in control of your emotions.
2. Name your guilt out loud or write it down.
Stare yourself in the mirror and say what you feel guilty about. Or, if you don’t have an accessible mirror, write it down and then read it aloud. This takes your thoughts, forms them into words, and makes you hear them.
Maybe it’s something like:
“I feel guilty I didn’t take the kids to the park today.”
But, once you say that verbally, you might think:
“Okay, that’s true. But, I did bake cookies with them and worked on my own personal project.”
Both of those are valid and important.
When guilt lives inside our heads, it doesn’t need our permission to grow and fester. It just floods through everything, making it increasingly difficult to get ahead of it. Saying your guilt out loud puts it into perspective.
“I feel guilty that I’m so sad.” If you say it out loud, you might discover that you don’t feel guilty anymore. After all, being sad isn’t something to feel guilty about.
When we name emotions and say them out loud, it’s like we’re saying, “I see you, and I acknowledge what you’re telling me.”
For example, on a particularly dark, depressive day, you might feel guilty that you’re unmotivated, exhausted, and feel hopeless. But, when you say it out loud, “I feel guilty because I’m unmotivated, fatigued, and feel hopeless,” you invite the why.
Why do you feel that way?
You feel that way because you live with depression and are experiencing a challenging moment.
Maybe you feel shame for taking medication for depression. Perhaps you were brought up in a home that didn’t believe in that, and now you’re left feeling guilty for not turning out how you were supposed to. Now when you say that out loud, you’re acknowledging that you have a medical diagnosis that a medical doctor believes requires treatment.
It’s validating ourselves when we say our guilt out loud because we can answer the why. It invites us to control the narrative.
Practicing this exercise helps manage feelings of guilt and depression. Giving emotions a real name and reason out loud is empowering. Even if the emotions or thoughts are negative, it’s still important to name them. The emotion is there for a reason and is sent to serve a purpose. Rather than hide it, stand up and say, “Hi guilt, I see you, thank you for being here, but I got it from here.”
On the flip side, if we don’t acknowledge it, it can, and most likely will, intensify and increase symptoms of depression. Acknowledging your guilt is like permitting it to exist in a natural, tangible world, not just in your mind.
Here’s another example:
“I feel guilty because I am sad even though I have a wonderful family.”
And that’s where the other side of you steps in.
That side is prepared with accurate, tangible information. That side is your protector and talks to you like you would your best friend:
“You’re feelings are valid. Depression is a real mental illness, and it’s not your fault.”
Or how about this one:
“I feel guilty that I don’t want to be here, doing this mom thing anymore. I’m drowning.”
That’s when you tell yourself:
“You’re doing the best you can do now, and that’s all you can do. The best moms aren’t the perfect ones. They’re the ones who are there, which you are.”
When we verbally name the emotion, we permit it to exist in real life. But, once we hear it, it’s easy to see that it doesn’t belong there. It works well with the guilt of depression.
Feeling guilty for being sad, feeling guilty for feeling like a burden, feeling ashamed to need help, and being too afraid to ask for it are all prevalent feelings in people with depression.
Every day, you might tell yourself, “Depression is real, this isn’t my fault. I am not the cause of my mental illness.” Things become less scary when their names aren’t as ridden with anxiety.
3. Start a routine of self-reflection concerning the guilt you’re feeling.
Self-reflection might seem like a “hippie-type practice” to some, but it’s really just a frame of mind and a way of exploring your thoughts.
We live in a world that is constant go, go, go, but how often do we ask ourselves, “do we really like the go go go thing?” And that kind of information will only come from self-reflection.
Self-reflection is basically pressing pause on life and turning your attention inward. Maybe you’re sitting in a dark room, or somewhere relaxing. You bring to mind the last moment of extensive guilt. Then you proceed to think about how you behaved, what you did, and how you felt.
Self-reflection is a form of personal analysis. It takes time and discipline, but it sheds light and perspective, especially concerning guilt and depression. Self-reflection can help you identify patterns of behavior that might need to change, and places in your routine where you can insert something positive.
You just have to stop life for a moment and think…
“I just feel very guilty. I can’t shake it. I have a healthy, wonderful family but feel disconnected and alone. I shouldn’t feel this way, but I do.”
Now you pause.
Self-reflection invites wondering, pondering, and questioning. If you’re already diagnosed with depression, you recognize the trigger signs above. You’re feeling guilty, disconnected, and alone. If you pause to listen to this thought, then it might end with, “Wow, I’m not feeling great; I need to do some self-care and get my head in the game.”
If you’re not already diagnosed and still learning about depression and various trigger signs, you can still identify and name the feeling of guilt you can’t seem to get rid of. Once you pause, self-reflect, and take the time to see this, you can invite the why.
Maybe it would be an excellent time to reach out to a good friend? Schedule something exciting in your calendar, so you have something to look forward to? Ensure you’re eating and drinking a healthy, nutrient-filled diet?
Again, when emotions and feelings are named, it invites a why.
Self-reflection is sitting and having a cup of coffee with that why. And this might increase anxiety or make you feel uncomfortable to begin with. Just like feeling every other feeling, those feelings too are perfectly okay.
But, if you practice and get used to and comfortable with questioning yourself inside, you’re going to get a lot more comfortable identifying possible triggers, knowing how to take care of them, and advocating for yourself and your care.
Start a personal reflective practice. This can take various forms; the following are a few examples. First, watch your environment and notice how you feel in various situations. Then, to have the time to ponder these feelings try meditation, journaling, writing exercises, walking in nature, and breathing exercises. Doing this will help you find clarity on how you’re feeling and why you’re feeling it, and if there is anything you need to do about it.
4. Understand what is and isn’t in your control.
After identifying what your triggers are and what starts the viscous circle between guilt and depression, the next step to coping is understanding whether or not you have control over the said thing.
If you don’t have control over it, you might find it silly to have strong feelings about it. So rather than feeling unpleasant feelings about something you can’t control because we’ve already identified that you can’t, why not shift that focus to something you can control?
For example, you can control how you speak to yourself, how you think of yourself, and the choices you’re making. However, a few things that you can’t control and therefore shouldn’t feel guilty about are: that you have a mental illness, that you need medical attention/help in order to live a healthy, thriving life, and that medication therapy might be the best option.
When you’re feeling swamped with guilt, ask yourself, “Is this something I can control?” or “Can I change this?” If the answer is no, shift the focus to what you can control.
Though this does take practice, you’ll notice a shift when you get in the habit of zoning in on what you can control rather than feeling guilt over things you can’t.
For example, having depression isn’t something you can control. However, taking care of yourself, eating well, sleeping regularly, and all the things that can affect depression, ARE things you can control.
5. Use positive affirmations.
Positive affirmations are an amazing and powerful tool. They are arguably not used enough. Using simple affirmations repeatedly slowly alters the subconscious thought, which is where guilt lives.
I am strong and can move past this challenging moment.
I am at peace with my diagnosis of depression and understand that it’s not my fault.
I am full of compassion towards myself.
I am worthy of peace and happiness.
Positive affirmations should be personal and something you feel, so don’t just take these, say them, and expect magic. It must be something meaningful for you.
Write your own affirmation statements so that in a moment of guilt or struggle with depression, you have a tool you can pull out. You should write affirmations in the present tense, use a positive tone of voice, and begin your affirmation with I.
6. Learn to wallow healthily.
Sometimes the guilt feels so heavy, the shame and embarrassment might feel too much, and everything is spinning.
That’s okay. What we listed above are simple tools and tips that you can try. Not every tip will benefit every person, and definitely not every time.
If you can’t ease your feelings at any point in time, you can still learn how to feel those feelings healthily.
You can do that in a variety of ways. First, identify what you’re feeling and what triggered the feeling and explore it in self-reflection. Understand if it’s something you can control or if you need to examine the other variable that is more in your control.
A few ways to feel and understand emotions constructively and healthily are:
- Draw or color it out
- Ponder and accept
- Cry, vent, scream
See, emotions are healthy, and they’re always telling us something. But, before we react to our emotions such as guilt, let’s learn to take a moment to ask, is this in our control?
Is this something I can personally control? If the answer is leaning towards positive, then go ahead and handle it. If the answer is no, then focus on what you can control.
You can meditate to ease your anxiety about the tremendous guilt you feel. You can journal and write out all your emotions, giving them a place to exist outside of your mind. You can draw or paint to express your feelings, allowing them into real life.
These are things you can control about your emotion. But unfortunately, guilt often comes hand in hand with depression. So you must learn to differentiate between guilt because I compromised my moral values, standards, or beliefs, and guilt because I’m ashamed of these dark thoughts, I’m embarrassed about the depression symptoms I’m struggling with.
Take the time to learn different things that help you. For example, are you a creative person? Perhaps having paint on hand and available for those challenging moments will be helpful for you. On the other hand, maybe you are more of a writer? Try to have a journal nearby to explore whatever thoughts are popping into your head quickly.
Take time during your self-reflection to understand who you are and what types of things help you because those things are crucial in this. For example, if you love nature, then maybe find a local hiking trail to escape to when you need a few moments alone.
Be ready with the tools you need for yourself. And how you find those tools is rooted in self-reflection and self-discovery.
7. Practice gratitude.
Two extreme and opposite emotions can’t exist simultaneously in our brains. So if you’re feeling overwhelming guilt, turning the focus to a gratitude practice can help alleviate these feelings.
Gratitude releases us from the negative and toxic emotions and lets us appreciate and feel happiness. However, practicing gratitude can take some work. Its benefits are incredible, with lasting effects on the brain, but they develop and build gradually over time.
Practicing gratitude gives the brain a boost of dopamine and serotonin and immediately improves mood. Therefore, creating a gratitude practice/ritual it’s something you can reach for to help with the feelings of guilt and even with symptoms of depression.
It’s common to feel guilty about being a burden, but gratitude will remind you that you’re not, and that your loved ones love you, and society and the world do too.
Guilt might haunt you about not being able to get better, but gratitude will remind you that you still have a chance, and as long as you’re breathing, you can still try.
You might be wracked with the embarrassment of how this latest depressive episode has left you, but gratitude will remind you that you’re worthy, important, and deserving of self-compassion.
Create a gratitude practice. Start your daily morning by writing down three things you’re grateful for. Then, in more harrowing moments, you can read these statements which should help you to ease the guilty feelings.
When you’re feeling guilt, shame, and embarrassment, you can turn your focus towards gratitude. When you say or think negatively about yourself, then balance it with something you’re grateful for. Gratitude is fantastic, and its benefits are undeniable.
8. Develop a healthy sleep schedule.
Healthy sleep is key to a healthy life. In managing guilt, depression symptoms, and nearly any other negative feeling, sleep is vital. And I don’t mean it’s key in a way that it fixes anything, but rather it’s key to coping, managing, and essentially thriving.
But on the other hand, not getting adequate sleep can worsen depression symptoms and increase the struggle with guilt.
Create a healthy and regular sleep schedule. Develop healthy habits around bedtime to support healthy sleep. Remember that sleeping doesn’t make you lazy, and it’s absolutely critical in managing depression symptoms.
Living with feelings of guilt, shame, or embarrassment about depression is hard, and it’s a heavy thing to carry.
Please know that feelings of guilt in depression are normal and common. But please also know that you are important. The world needs you. You’re not a burden, and with these tips, you can manage your guilt more effectively.
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