Overcome Toxic Guilt: Strategies for Letting Go

overcoming toxic guilt

While guilt is a normal emotion we all feel—toxic guilt isn’t something you should have to deal with. Guilt is a complex emotion that you feel when you’ve done something wrong. As a child, and even as an adult, this is important. Guilt teaches you the difference between right and wrong, supports the development of morals that will act as a compass throughout your life, and so much more.

Toxic guilt, on the other hand, is what many women feel as adults. Instead of feeling guilty when you truly do something wrong—like hitting a friend on the playground—you feel it when you haven’t done anything “wrong.” 

For example, you might feel guilt when you set a boundary with a loved one. You do something that’s healthy and supportive for you, but feel guilty for disappointing them or making them unhappy in the process. This isn’t helpful guilt—this is toxic guilt.

Over time, this becomes a heavy burden, holding you back from living a truly fulfilling life. In this blog post, I’ll explore the concept of toxic guilt and, of course, share some practical steps to find that liberation you’ve been seeking. 

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Your Daily Dose of Toxic Guilt

Toxic guilt refers to feelings that are disproportionate and irrational, and often disconnected from any real wrongdoing. The sad thing is, as an adult—and especially as a woman—you may feel this toxic guilt on a near-daily basis. Here are some examples of where you might see it show up in your life:

  • Taking time for yourself: You feel selfish or undeserving when prioritizing your own needs.
  • Achieving success or happiness: You may feel toxic guilt if others around you are struggling while you’re succeeding. 
  • Making decisions for loved ones: If you’re a parent or a caretaker, you worry that your choices will negatively impact your children or the people you care for, even if those decisions are reasonable.
  • Expressing personal needs or desires: You may feel this more intensely if those needs or desires inconvenience others. 
  • Not meeting unrealistically high expectations: You see others following the status quo and you feel toxic guilt when you’re not. This goes hand-in-hand with any and all expectations, from unrealistic beauty standards to the standards both parents and women are held to. 

There are many reasons why you might feel that toxic guilt, so I want to talk about how to let it go and find a greater sense of peace in your life. 

5 Steps to Let Go of Guilt (The Toxic Kind!)

Some level of guilt is normal—it’s an emotion just like love, fear, anger, or joy. It’s the toxic kind that we want to let go of. To do so, you have to be willing to self-reflect, tap into your self-compassion, and get intentional about changing those negative thought patterns that are keeping you stuck. Here are five steps that have been helpful for me in making this happen.

Step 1: Become Aware of the Guilt

Step one is being aware of that toxic guilt. This is something you’ve likely been experiencing most of your adult life. Like any habit you’ve been doing for a long time, you might spiral into that negative mindset without even realizing it. 

One way to create this awareness is to make a list of trigger moments, or times when you know it comes up. For me, that unnecessary guilt can creep up when I need to take time off of work because I’m feeling under the weather or when I say no to a social gathering so that I can create more downtime for myself.

Knowing when it’s likely to show up will help you with the next step.

Step 2: Challenge the Toxic Guilt

This guilt is rarely the result of something you’ve done wrong. This is why it’s so important to challenge that emotion when one of those trigger moments happens. Doing this can be as simple as asking yourself, “Is this feeling of guilt real? Did I do something wrong?” This brings you back to reality and facts—rather than getting stuck in that spiral.

Step 3: Give Yourself Some Love

Now it’s time for self-compassion. You didn’t do anything wrong, yet you’ve been conditioned to believe otherwise. In this moment, it’s so important that you shift from critical to compassionate. For me, this often looks like a moment of talking to myself. I might say:

“This is a hard moment, Robin. It’s understandable that you might feel guilty right now because it’s what you’ve been taught. I know it’s hard to feel this and I understand why you’re struggling. I also know that you didn’t do anything wrong.”

The key to this is to talk to yourself like a best friend would talk to you. If you’re a parent, you can also think of how you would soothe your child. You want to be kind, loving and soft with yourself.

Step 4: Correct the Thought Pattern

According to the Principles of Neuroplasticity, you can literally change your brain (so cool!) over time. A therapist once taught me that all automatic thoughts are like train tracks. When you interrupt and correct the thought, you start building a new train track. Over time, the train follows the new train track that you built and thus, your thoughts change as well. The more you practice this, over time, you won’t automatically default to guilt. You’ll default to compassion, happiness or neutrality.

Step 5: Be Consistent

The key with this process is consistency. You have to catch that thought, give yourself some love, and then correct it again and again and again for this to work. The best way to ensure you stick with it is to build your mindfulness muscle. The more mindful you are, the easier it is to catch the guilt, and then follow through with each step.

Mindfulness for Overcoming Guilt That Doesn’t Serve You

Being mindful means that you’re present. Instead of living a busy life on auto-pilot, you’re engaged in each moment and aware of your feelings and emotions. Check out my blog post on mindful versus mindfull to learn more about the difference between these two things.

Living with more mindfulness means you’re not just letting thoughts take over—like toxic guilt. Instead, you’re aware and present, and can then tap into that compassion and challenge the guilt when it does arise.

There are many ways to develop more mindfulness in your everyday life, and here at Lindywell, we particularly love breathwork and Pilates. Both of these can be valuable tools in creating more mindfulness in every area of your life. Let’s look at how and why.

Mindfulness and Breathwork

This is a key mindfulness tool, according to Kiesha Yokers Head of Breathwork and Somatic Programs. As she said: “Breathwork is a perfect tool for building your mindfulness muscle because when you practice conscious, intentional breathing, you create space for rest. You also create space to turn down the volume on the noise that surrounds you and the constant clamor in your head, and you become more available to listen.”

With that greater capacity to listen, you can be more present and mindful—even outside of your breathwork session. Sign up for your free trial of our Pilates and breathwork app and get access to dozens of guided breathwork sessions, which our members love. Catherine said, “The breathwork sessions have also been such a gift.” While Jodene said, “The breathwork has been an eye-opener!”

Mindfulness and Pilates

The intentional and focused style of movement you do in Pilates gives you a chance to practice mindfulness every time you step on the mat. This is especially true at Lindywell, where you start each workout by tuning into the body and checking in with yourself. While studies have found this correlation between Pilates and mindfulness, we can also see just by looking at the 2,000+ reviews from our thousands of members across the globe!

Start your free trial of Lindywell and get instant access to 350+ workouts that range from 10 to 30 minutes. Even better, make one less decision each day and just do the workout of the day!

Let Go of Your Toxic Guilt

Toxic guilt is a bad friend—and it’s time to let go of her. While guilt can and does serve a purpose, this chronic form of guilt that comes up when you’re not doing anything wrong does not. I hope you can use these five steps to let go of toxic guilt that doesn’t serve you so you can make room for more joy and happiness in your life!

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6 thoughts on “Overcome Toxic Guilt: Strategies for Letting Go”

    1. We’re so glad that this blog resonated for you and can serve as a reminder that you are worth it, Vickie! We are cheering you on!

  1. This really resonated with me- I never put myself first or do for myself because of feeling guilty or being afraid of what others may think or say about me . I really need to put this into practice !

    1. We are so glad that this resonated for you, Leslie, and was exactly the reminder that you needed that you are worth it and deserving of caring for yourself! <3

  2. This blog was very helpful. I very much tend to feel guilt all the time unnecessarily. I also love the train track analogy. Also like the note of the difference between being mindful and mindfull. This is something I see in myself frequently.

    1. We are so glad that this blog resonated for you and helped you to look at things differently. We’re cheering you on, Sandy, you are worth it!

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