Do you have a sense that you’ve always done something wrong, but it’s difficult to place what that is? Or perhaps when something does go wrong, you’re the first to take the blame… 

No matter what you do or how hard you try to help people out, you can’t shake the feeling that you’re never quite “enough”. You feel less than, inadequate somehow – but you’re not sure why.

If you find yourself feeling guilty a lot of the time, you might relate to some of the following thoughts:

  • “If I don’t put others first, I’m a selfish person”
  • “It’s my responsibility to make sure people are happy”
  • “I’m not as “good” as other people”
  • “Putting other people’s needs before my own is always the right thing to do”.

Why do I feel so guilty for no reason?  

Let’s start by saying no one is born with these kinds of thoughts. Guilt doesn’t just arrive out of the blue. If you’re feeling guilty for no reason, it can usually be traced back to your past. 

We all have an “inner critic”, but some of us have a much louder, harsher one than others. What your inner critic sounds like (and the stories it tells) has a lot to do with the kinds of messages you received growing up. 

Let’s look at a couple of examples for how this can play out.

Someone who grew up in a household that was success-driven is likely to have a very pressurising inner critic, one that tells them to work harder “or else”. 

Just as someone who grew up in a cruel or neglectful household is likely to have a more punishing one, telling them they’re “worthless” or that they’ll “never make it”.

Initially, the inner critic develops as a way of protecting us. As children, we’re vulnerable – we need the protection and care of adults in order to survive. Our inner critic serves a powerful purpose. It is formed to help keep us “in-check”, to behave in such a way that we fit in, and to save us from further ridicule or shame. Like this, it helps us survive – ensuring we maintain the connection we so desperately need.

The problem is, overtime these “voices” become integrated into our personality. They literally become us. And whilst they might have helped us as we were growing up, they hold us back from reaching our potential in adult life.

If guilt is a familiar emotion to you, these belief systems about yourself and what you should be doing were likely passed down to you. This might have been in a very direct way (it was said in clear, plain terms) or indirectly (it was implied through actions).

More often than not, a guilt-tripping inner dialogue develops for people who were heavily relied upon as children – either physically or emotionally. An example might be having to look after a chronically ill or depressed parent. In these cases, the child ended up feeling responsible for protecting and caring for their parent.

There might have been the sense that no matter what you did, it was never enough. Or perhaps the guilt came about through subtle messages (“I don’t know what I’d do without you”, “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine”). 

Whatever it was, you were instilled with the belief that it was your responsibility to take care of people. You find your value in pleasing and serving others.

The problem is, you can’t please everyone, and in trying to do so, you lose sight of your own needs. In fact, you might even struggle to recognise that you have needs.

Because of this, you might find yourself racked with guilt anytime you need to assert yourself or uphold boundaries. Deep down believing that if you shift the focus to your own needs, you’ll be faced with the rejection you feared as a child.

Signs to look out for

  • You’re eager to please
  • You feel guilty for disagreeing with people
  • You have difficulty recognising what you want in life (big and small decisions)
  • You have a tendency to put other people’s needs before your own
  • You can “feel” other people’s emotions
  • You can’t bear hurting other people’s feelings
  • You feel guilty asking for what you want
  • You struggle to assert yourself
  • You play “caretaker” a lot, whether that’s that’s with friends or partners.
  • You struggle to negotiate, and find it difficult to ask for raises at work
  • You struggle delegating as feel uncomfortable asking for support

How to stop feeling guilty all the time 

Guilt serves a purpose – it shows us where we went wrong. But it loses that purpose when it sticks around with us for no reason. 

Living a life with the constant feeling that we’ve done something wrong is not only exhausting, but it can lead to a lot of anxiety, and cause us damage in the long run.

Instead of shifting your energy towards other people’s needs, you must learn to focus your attention on your own needs.

Therapy can help you identify where this guilt-tripping voice stems from so that you can, with time, override it. There are a number of techniques that can be used to challenge and destabilize it so that it no longer interferes with your day-to-day life.

The first step to overcoming guilt is the realisation that it’s not your burden to carry. Acknowledge why it’s there, and be compassionate with yourself. You might even want to acknowledge what you’ve learnt along the way. You’re likely to be the type of person who is naturally empathetic – and that is a beautiful quality. This empathy just needs to be directed to the right places – and importantly, never at the expense of your own wellbeing.