There is an important difference between having a conscience and feeling guilty.

Being guided by your conscience means understanding right and wrong (according to your own value system). This is what helps correct us when we have, or are about to act in a way which would conflict with our values, or those of society.

Feeling guilty, on the other hand, can result in neurotic self-blaming which serves no useful purpose.

Good news about guilty feelings

The ability to feel guilty is a useful part of our social evolution. We are a social species and shame, guilt and fear of discovery of our errors would naturally help keep us in line and discourage us from committing them. The good news about guilt, is that it is the flip-side of social awareness; If you feel guilty it means that you have a conscience.

When guilty feelings are a nuisance

But there’s also the sort of nagging and pervasive guilt that blights many people’s lives. Guilt may be a necessary emotion, but it quickly becomes redundant when it makes itself a nuisance, by giving us intrusive and upsetting feelings that don’t seem to be tied to anything specific that we’ve done.

With this sort of guilt, we don’t think we have anything to feel guilty about, but we get the guilty feelings anyway. In extreme cases, we’ll apologise when there’s nothing to say sorry for. Eventually, a pervasive and nagging sense of guilt can start to shape our behaviour, our beliefs about ourselves, and even our character.

Breaking the cycle

To break this painful cycle you must first recognise the problem for what it is. Examine the feelings and challenge the logic that keeps them alive. This can be tricky because guilt will fight back with all sorts of counter-arguments (it can even make you feel guilty about wanting to be guilt-free).

Healing starts with an acceptance that unhealthy guilty feelings are unjustified and that you can be free of them. You may not believe it or think you deserve it, but that just how guilt keeps you stuck with it.