How to Tell The Difference between True and False Guilt!

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True or False GuiltFeeling guilty is something we all have to deal with from time to time. Guilt serves a purpose in society – when it’s reasonable. True guilt is MEANT to make us feel bad, so that we make amends, rebuild our essential relationships and don’t do it again. False guilt serves no such purpose – and only makes us feel terrible…

Yet there seem to be more and more ‘reasons’ for us to feel guilty (I should have recycled that/volunteered at that fund-raiser/stayed late and finished that project/should have gone to that family dinner). Should, should, should. We seem to go through life should’n all over ourselves – and feeling terrible!

And what makes it worse is that all too often we can’t tell the difference between true and false guilt. Instead we get caught up in the unpleasant guilt feelings – and believe them!

TRUE GUILT comes from a lack of internal integrity. True guilt is when we don’t follow our own truth and we do something that we can see is clearly ‘wrong’ (even if we only see this in retrospect). True guilt is reasonable and appropriate. And with true guilt we can face ourselves, make amends and resolve the matter as best we can, then move on. It’s a mature response that helps us learn and be accountable.

FALSE GUILT is a learned response. It’s triggered by something external to us - an outside demand we could not or did not meet. False Guilt is unreasonable (you can’t reason with it), inappropriate (the guilt is applied incorrectly) and unhealthy (we make ourselves feel terrible). Essentially false guilt is about BLAMING OURSELVES. And when we feel this unreasonable or false guilt, making amends does not resolve our guilty feelings. We get stuck in a cycle of self-judgement, suffering pointless and often debilitating emotional pain.

So, How To Tell If It’s TRUE or FALSE GUILT?


  • You feel stuck or trapped (especially if you feel there are no alternatives open to you).
  • You DON’T feel fully responsible or accountable (the situation feels outside of your control).
  • You’re protecting someone else’s feelings.
  • You’ve apologised, made amends and yet you STILL feel guilty.
  • You feel to BLAME. You may even feel the need to be punished.

It’s Probably REAL or TRUE GUILT if:

  • You know exactly why you feel this way. You may not like it, but it’s clear cut.
  • You feel fully responsible and accountable for what happened.
  • The guilt is resolved by facing and/or stopping the behaviour – and taking relevant and appropriate amending action.
  • You can see the entire cycle of actions from beginning to end.
  • The situation leads to learning, self-forgiveness – and ultimately perhaps even higher self-esteem.

REMEMBER: All too often we think because we FEEL guilty – it must be true, we are a bad person. But guilt is JUST A THOUGHT – and not reality. If you can separate these two you’re well on your way!

Watch for next week’s article is about HOW to work through guilt!

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2 Responses to How to Tell The Difference between True and False Guilt!

  1. Shelly says:

    My boyfriend who I have been living with for over a year is moving out because he has so much guilt for leaving his wife and kids. We have completely rearranged our lives to accommodate our children. Having time that we all share together, time with just our kids and time alone. The kids all love each other and seem very happy and secure with the arrangement. We were both in controlled unhappy marriages and unexpectedly fell in love. We are so compatible and are best friends, lovers, and soul mates. Before he moved in with me he tried going back to his wife for the kids but she rejected him. He thought that that would help get rid of his guilt. He loves me a was very happy with me but only feels guilt. It is destroying him. We both are completely heart broken. We have loved each other unconditionally for over 3 years. I want him to feel better about himself I want him to be free from all the guilt and be happy and be the man that he needs to be, I’m so sad and scared that we will never be together again.

    • Emma-Louise says:

      Dear Shelly,

      It sounds like an extremely challenging time for both of you. Guilt (and shame) can take over, making us do things that we think we SHOULD be doing, instead of doing what is right for US. Unfortunately you can’t make his guilt go away – no one can, except him. Until he forgives himself and learns to live with his decisions and choices, he is likely to allow his guilt and shame to influence his behaviour.

      Guilt and shame are INTENDED to make us feel bad. Without it, people could keep doing ‘bad’ things over and over again. But controlling people have learned how to use guilt and shame to get others to do what they want. It feels terrible, so people will do what the other person wants in order to avoid those nasty feelings. In addition, we often have inner critics that also treat us this way – using guilt and shame (And shoulds, ought tos etcs) to drive our choices and behaviour.

      It works only as long as we believe the critic or controlling person, as long as we believe they are more deserving than we are. At the root is often a feeling of worthlessness. And the problem is not whether the thing we have done IS ‘bad’, but whether we THINK it is ‘bad’. If we believe we are bad and worthless we are more likely to agree (judge ourselves) that it’s our fault when someone (or our own critic) accuses us. The problem isn’t the truth, it’s what we believe.

      And it’s worse when we have done something that could be considered bad. This gives our controllers and inner critics REAL ammunition to use. So, we MUST learn to forgive ourselves. Until that happens, it’s very hard to move forwards as we’re constantly (re)judging ourselves.

      This is a BIG topic. In the meantime, while your boyfriend deals with all this (is he seeing a counsellor?), you need to take care of YOU. What are you doing to take care of you? Are you seeing a counsellor to help you with this? You could also see someone together.

      It sounds like you are courageously dealing with a very tough situation Shelly. Please take care of yourself. Keep up your compassion and strength for yourself and your boyfriend. And I hope, in time, that you are together again.

      Warmly, Emma-Louise

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