How to Help Someone Handle Guilt & Self Punishment

Written by shelby winchell
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How to Help Someone Handle Guilt & Self Punishment
Talking face-to-face is the best way to help a friend. (Polka Dot Images/Polka Dot/Getty Images)

Guilt is a normal feeling people experience when think they've done something wrong. Dealing with guilt helps a person re-examine their behaviour so they don't make the same mistake twice, but sometimes people who feel guilty may punish themselves as a way of coping with their feelings. You can try to help a friend overcome her sense of guilt and stop punishing herself. If you can't help her, professional treatment might be the only solution.

Skill level:
Moderately Challenging

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    Talk about why he feels guilty and determine if it's a healthy or unhealthy sense of guilt he's feeling. Healthy guilt is when a person feels remorse for thinking or doing something that was insensitive, unfair or morally wrong and then seeks forgiveness. For example, if your friend said something mean to another person, he probably hurt their feelings and now regrets what he said. He is feeling a healthy sense of guilt. In this case, he can change his behaviour and learn from his mistakes. Unhealthy guilt is when someone hasn't done anything wrong, but nevertheless feels a sense of guilt. An example of unhealthy guilt is when a new mom returns to work and leaves her new child in day care. She feels guilty despite the fact she hasn't done anything wrong.

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    Help her accept that she did something wrong, if her guilty is warranted. Tell her she cannot change the past, but she can move forward and avoid making the same mistake twice. If she's experiencing misplaced or unhealthy guilt, tell her she did nothing wrong despite her sense of remorse. Explain to her that she can't feel responsible for things that are outside of her control.

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    Think of ways he can make amends and learn from the experience. Making amends means apologising if he's hurt someone's feelings, changing his behaviour or adjusting his lifestyle to repair a broken relationship or break a bad habit.


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    Talk about why she's punishing herself. Helping her recognise that what she's doing is harmful is the first step to healing.

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    Help him identify the triggers that's causing him to hurt himself. What happens right before he punishes himself? Whatever sets him off is a trigger.

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    Determine other ways she can deal with and express her emotions. Self-punishment is a way of coping with our feelings. Talk about what she can do when she gets upset. Examples including calling a friend and talking; going for a walk or exercising to redirect her thoughts; or keeping a journal and writing her thoughts and feelings down.

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    Help him change his behaviour. This is something only he can do, but you can help him through the process by supporting him during this change. Be his cheerleader. Ask him about what he's doing to change and make sure he's following through.

Tips and warnings

  • Not every guilty feeling is well founded. Don't beat yourself up for making mistakes. It's human to make mistakes. Learning from those mistakes is the important part.

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