Letting Go of Toxic Guilt

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LETTING_GO_OF_TOXIC_GUILT_pinterest“We don’t have to allow ourselves to be controlled by guilt — earned or unearned.”

~Melody Beattie, The Language of Letting Go

Not all guilt is bad. We need guilt to keep us in line. It lets us know if we’re doing right or wrong. Healthy guilt is similar to a red flag signaling us that we’re off course. At this point, we assess the situation. Often no action is required, we simply get back on track. Sometimes though, we must change a behavior or make an apology, but then we carry-on. Then it’s over! The problem begins when we can’t move past it. When we wallow in guilt it becomes toxic.


In general, healthy guilt motivates behavior that nourishes relationships & builds a positive self-concept, while unhealthy guilt makes you feel powerless over others & is not self-affirming.” ~Susan Carrell, Escaping Toxic Guilt: Five Proven Steps to Free Yourself from Guilt for Good!

 ↓ Healthy Guilt Looks Like This 

Promotes self-respect

Encourages honesty, loyalty, and fidelity.

Encourages restraint and can delay gratification when necessary.

Helps us take responsibility for our actions.

Can lead to acts of compassion and/or courage.

Encourages us to consider the needs of others.

*List from Escaping Toxic Guilt: Five Proven Steps to Free Yourself from Toxic Guilt for Good!, by Susan Carrell, RN, LPC

Toxic Guilt Looks Like This 

Enslaves its victims.

Makes us doubt ourselves.

Makes us feel like we have to do it all.

Can cause us to abdicate responsibilities.

Can cause us to endlessly give and become a “suffering hero.”

Causes us to blame ourselves for everything.

Twists the truth and blinds us to the reality of the situation.

Makes victims feel responsible when they are not.

*List from Escaping Toxic Guilt: Five Proven Steps to Free Yourself from Toxic Guilt for Good!, by Susan Carrell, RN, LPC

Toxic guilt tells us that we’re not good enough. When guilt is toxic, we blame ourselves for everything. It can make us feel trapped {in relationships, jobs, etc.}. In some, these feelings are so intense that it becomes impossible to live a content life. In the end, toxic guilt depletes our physical & emotional resources, leading to physical & mental ailments; such as depression, anxiety, & resentment. Eventually, the guilty lose their identity as they constantly respond to what they think others want or expect from them.

Guilt-ridden people are generally good, responsible people, however, they worry about what others think. They always want to be, do, or look good in the eyes of others. They can’t handle the disapproval of others. Toxic guilt gives others power over us that they do not deserve.

In Carrell’s book, she talks about Victims & Rescuers… “Victims are emotionally wounded people who use guilt to manipulate others, & Rescuers are people who are intent on helping them.” An interesting possibility that she explores is that, Rescuers potentially give others what they seek for themselves; attention & affection. The problem is that it doesn’t work because victims usually don’t have it to give back.


It’s been my personal experience that it’s helpful when I take a step back & honestly assess what is motivating a particular thought pattern, intention, or action. 

The steps underlined below are from the book: Escaping Toxic Guilt: Five Proven Steps to Free Yourself from Guilt for Good!, by Susan Carrell; however, next to them is my interpretation of each step w/a few quotes thrown in for good measure 😉


  1. Ride the Wind: This is where we let go. Following the above three steps, it’s now time to relinquish control & accept the results. As I mentioned above, guilty people are generally responsible & Susan Carrell states that… “sometimes, responsible people have a high need for control.” However, we must let go to successfully overcome toxic guilt. Key factors in this step are: Letting go of needing approval from others, Learning to forgive others & yourself, & Learning acceptance.
  2. Claim Territory: We are claiming our emotional territory. This is about setting & defining clear, strong boundaries for ourselves. In order to do this, we must have self-respect & realize that our own wants & needs are equally as important as others; not more or less, but equal. Reinforce those boundaries!
  3. Speak the Truth: Get it all out!… Honestly tell someone you trust what’s bothering you. Holding strong emotions inside, especially negative emotions, can make a person physically & mentally ill. There’s a huge emotional release when we “confess” to someone who is accepting & non-judgemental. A sense of freedom is gained. Ahhhh… However, if you simply cannot bear the thought of speaking your truth to another person, keeping a journal is an extremely effective coping tool & may just help you build-up to speaking your truth to someone you trust. Make sure it’s in a safe place that only you have access to. Sometimes we get so frazzled that we can’t make sense of our complex thoughts & emotions. Writing in a journal helps us do that. -When I feel like I’m going to explode & there’s no one to talk to, I journal. Often, when I first start to write, it doesn’t make much sense & my handwriting is fairly large. The longer I write, the more clarity I gain & my thoughts & emotions begin to make sense… {& my handwriting returns to its normal size}.- You may be interested in this blog post: Journaling: My Favorite Healthy Coping Tool.
  4. Brace for the Storm: It is imperative that we hold our ground! This means, stick to the boundaries we’ve set no matter what other people’s reactions are. At the same time, prepare ourselves for other people’s disapproval, surprise, shock, & anger, because there will be some {or lots} of it. Even if that includes them leaving {or us leaving} a relationship. I don’t want to spook anyone, however, I feel that it would be careless not to mention that… in the beginning of this chapter, Carrell discusses Bracing for the Storm in a Committed Relationship, in which “hurt & pain can turn into retribution.” She goes on to say that “even when physical aggression has not previously characterized the relationship, the potential for violence can be very real & it’s wise to be cautious.” This book is great in the way it offers many different scenarios & analyzes each of them. Know that it’s possible to live happily with the disapproval of others.
  5. Patrol Borders: Be careful not to fall back into old habits, it’s easy to do. Maintain & reinforce our boundaries… protect that emotional territory that we’ve claimed. If we feel ourselves running towards yet another rescue, Carrell suggests stopping to ask ourselves, “can I step into this situation & maintain my emotional balance?” This is also when we reclaim our identity or regain the sense of self we may have lost along the way of accommodating others.

Just like everything else in life, it’s about balance. Balance giving care to others with taking care of ourselves. Remember that our wants & needs are equally important. Set those boundaries, claim that emotional territory! Don’t look to others for approval, self-approval is just fine. Forgive & Accept….

Did you overcome toxic guilt? How did you do it?

Krista-Lee-Pfeiffer :: Blogger & Creator of The Sunny Shadow

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