Getting Over Guilt

Everyone feels guilty over a social faux pas or missed opportunity now and again but, for some, guilt is an intense and overwhelming experience. If you feel:

  • Plagued by a mistake from long ago
  • Discomfort with opportunities and privileges
  • Disabled by thinking “I’m wasting time”

… this blog is for you.


Our society (and especially the Millennial generation) is becoming more comfortable disregarding our genuine struggles as “no big deal” and some even reproach themselves for experiencing hardship in the first place. Identifying the loss of a job, end of a relationship, or indecision about your life’s direction as “first world problems” generates a sense of guilt. It tends to make us think that we are undeserving of feeling distressed. The problem with thinking this way is that your distress is genuine and pretending that it doesn’t exist (or shouldn’t exist) often gets you stuck in a cycle of distress and guilt and more distress and more guilt.

Gratitude Over Guilt

Guilt is considered a negative emotion because it results in your mind shutting down. When we feel negative emotions we go into survival mode and all of our creativity gets put on hold. This means that guilt tends to limit your ability to see other options and that can lead to feeling stuck in a problematic pattern.

The positive emotions, however, are opening in nature. They inspire creativity, social connections, and exploration. Gratitude is one of the most powerful positive emotions. Gratitude and guilt occupy opposing sides of the same coin – where guilt removes us, shamefully, from relationships, gratitude inspires connection and generosity.

The first step in changing your guilt to gratitude is to acknowledge your guilt triggers. Perhaps you tend to feel guilty when you:

  • Notice your partner doing more work than you around the house
  • Encounter homeless or underprivileged people
  • Delay on completing a project at work
  • Recognize that you don’t call your grandmother as often as you’d like to

Once you’ve determined what your biggest guilt triggers are, consider writing them down. Jot down some of your trigger thoughts/feelings like “I’m such a bad grandchild and I must not appreciate my grandmother much” or noticing how you tend to avert your eyes and distract yourself when walking past a person begging on the street.

Now that you have those down, start brainstorming some ways in which you can notice what you are grateful for when your guilt gets triggered. When you notice you are beating yourself up over not calling your grandmother perhaps you can redirect your feelings, lingering on what you love about her and how grateful you feel that she is alive and part of your life. Likewise, if being around homeless people makes you uncomfortable, consider focusing on the aspects of your life that you are most fortunate to have: a safe home, a dependable food source, and a caring support system. Really dig into these thoughts and allow yourself to relish how grateful you feel for having the opportunities that you do. The closer we get to feeling gratitude the more likely we are to act generously (which happens to reduce guilt)!

Practice, Practice, Practice

It is totally normal to struggle to institute this practice. Guilt is a strong emotion and doesn’t like being pushed out of the way so it will force its way back in often. For many of us, guilt is a well-worn path in our brains and it will take time to wear down an equally clear gratitude trail. Our “success” at how grateful we feel in any give moment is significantly less important than keeping at the ritual of redirecting our thoughts to gratitude when we notice unnecessary guilt being triggered.

Learning from Guilt

Much of our daily guilt is unnecessary and doesn’t teach us anything instead it just makes us feel bad. However, guilt can also be a useful feeling. When we have done something to hurt someone or have acted recklessly, guilt is often helpful. It’s our own Jiminy Cricket telling us not to do that again. We can learn to discern helpful from unhelpful guilt by deciding if there is something we need to learn from how we are feeling. Oftentimes, we learn these lessons quickly (because guilt is uncomfortable!) and if we continue to feel guilty, we have crossed from the realm of helpful to unhelpful guilt.

Five Things You Didn’t Know about OCD

When most people think of OCD they might think of extreme orderliness or the tv character Monk. It gets thrown around as a way to describe people who are neat but most people don’t actually know what OCD is. Here’s a beginner’s guide to the ins and outs:

OCD Stands for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Most people already know the meaning behind the acronym but may not know what obsessions and compulsions actually are. An obsession is an unrelenting thought or mental image that is bothersome or distressing. Some common examples of obsessive thoughts are “what if something bad happens to my family?” or “what if I get a serious illness?” Everybody has doubt and worry thoughts from time to time but most people with OCD would describe their obsessive thoughts as haunting. They often feel like these concerning thoughts won’t leave them alone and even if they try to rid themselves of the thoughts they return uninvited.

Compulsions, on the other hand, are usually observable actions that provide some kind of relief from the distress elicited by an obsessive thought. The most common example of a compulsion is repetitive hand washing (often in reaction to an obsessive thought about contracting a serious illness or being dirty). Compulsions can take many forms including running through a mental checklist, touching a specific object, or checking to make sure that the stove is really off. Just like obsessions, everyone does actions that could look like a compulsion occasionally but people with OCD often feel compelled to do these actions over and over to seek relief from their distress.

OCD is Really Common

About 1 in 50 people (more than 2% of the world population) have OCD. In the United States, it affects more than 3 million adults. For most people it develops in childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood and may stick with them for a long time until they seek treatment. The delay is caused by a lack of understanding of what OCD really is. This means that most people with the disorder suffer in silence and without a diagnosis for years (or decades) until someone is able to identify their symptoms as OCD and refer them for appropriate treatment.

Many Shapes and Sizes

When we think about OCD a lot of people picture someone who is extremely neat or washes their hands often. While these behaviors can be indicative of OCD, they are just a small piece of the pie. OCD can be as different as the people it affects. There are many subtypes that point the affected person toward specific obsessions and compulsions.

Some people fear accidentally or unknowingly doing harm to themselves or others while others are preoccupied with thoughts that their partner is dishonest or unfaithful. People with these subtypes may often check to make sure that the thing they fear has not happened or may ask others to reassure them that nothing is wrong. OCD can also manifest as a fear that our thoughts can be dangerous or spiritually/morally wrong which may lead people to try to “correct” their thoughts by being on the look out for “bad” thoughts and replacing them with “good” thoughts. Others count, touch, or hoard in an attempt to feel less distressed.

For more reading check out these resources:

You Can’t “Just Stop It”

To an outsider, OCD may not make much sense and the assumption is that the person should “just stop” acting strangely. This is an unfair and inaccurate assumption. Most people with OCD have tried time and time again to stop the cycle of worry and reassurance to no avail. In fact, most people with the disorder know that what they are doing doesn’t make them feel better but they can’t find an alternative way to cope with their distress. Once OCD has become distressing enough to interrupt your life you can’t “just stop” and it’s a good time to seek help from a professional.

OCD Responds Well to Treatment!

Good news! There are several highly effective treatments for OCD that allow people to feel less distressed and distracted.

The gold standard in OCD treatment is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This typically involves working with a specialized therapist to build healthy coping skills and challenge your problematic beliefs. OCD tells you that you can’t handle the worry or distress caused by your obsessive thoughts and that you have to do compulsions to feel better. Through therapy we can start to identify these thinking patterns and recognize that it is OCD lying to you. Through a treatment called Exposure and Response Prevention you are able to notice that there are other ways to feel better when your worry thoughts are triggered and that you can tolerate the distress caused by your thoughts. Meditation, medication, building support, and finding healthier coping skills can all supplement therapy.

The bottom line: OCD is a treatable mental illness that needs more accurate exposure because it effects millions of people, many of whom will never receive effective treatment. Be an advocate and spread the word!

If you or someone you know is struggling, reach out and schedule an appointment.