Divorce Healing: Processing Guilt, Releasing Shame

You tried your best to make your marriage work, but it did not. Maybe your spouse left you, or perhaps you were the one who filed for divorce. Now, you may be trying to resolve conflicts and forgive your ex. That’s hard work. But what about forgiving yourself?

When a relationship ends, it’s never 100% one person’s fault. And sometimes, there’s no one to blame. Still, a common emotion after divorce is a sense of guilt … maybe even a sense of shame. You may feel guilty because you filed for divorce, upsetting your spouse and upending your children's lives. You may feel guilty because your spouse left you, leaving you to wonder what flaw of yours caused this chain of unpleasant events.

Believe it or not, guilt can be a healthy factor in our lives. Guilt can motivate us to apologize, learn from our mistakes, and strive to do better next time. When guilt turns the key to self-growth, we should embrace it. But guilt, when left to fester without proper processing, can turn to shame. And shame is downright destructive.

The difference between guilt and shame

The terms “guilt” and “shame” are not the same, even though people sometimes use them interchangeably in conversation. Whereas guilt can be a positive force in your life, shame is a highly negative one.

What is guilt?

Guilt is the state of having committed some kind of breach and knowing you carry the blame for it. You stole the cookie from the cookie jar. You've confessed. And you're accepting the consequences. But guilt is not, by definition, a moral judgment, nor is it a painful emotion that keeps you up at night. (Merriam-Webster backs this up.)

What is shame?

Shame is a painful emotion that keeps you up at night. Often, shame stems from guilt. (Merriam-Webster backs this up, too.) You may be guilty of taking the cookie from the cookie jar, but are you ashamed of your behavior? If you have decided you’re a bad person for taking that cookie, then yes, you are engaging in self-shame.

How to embrace guilt rather than letting it bring you down

Think about your feelings of guilt without the moral lens for a moment. What did you do, purposefully or not, that caused someone else to feel bad? Accept the facts, whatever they may be. You cannot turn back the hands of time and undo past events, whether you want to or not.

Now, identify the feelings you have attached to this guilt. How do you feel, and why do you feel this way? 

When you're ready, start thinking about forgiveness. Can you forgive yourself for what has occurred? Moreover, does the self-punishment you've inflicted upon yourself accomplish anything? Does it make anyone else feel better? Does it make you a better person?

The healthiest way to cope with guilt is to embrace it, stop judging yourself for it, and let any bad feelings go. Each situation is different, and each person's emotional makeup is different. Many people can't just "get over it" on their own, no matter how hard they try. If you can't let go of guilt (and can't stop punishing yourself) on your own, there are actionable steps you can take to work on it. Consider journaling your thoughts and feelings, confiding in a friend or support group, or seeking help from a therapist you trust.

How long does it take to get over divorce? The timeline is different for everyone, but an oft-quoted figure is two years. So, be gentle with yourself. Give yourself time to grieve and to heal.

Role of self-compassion in mitigating guilt

We’re going to talk about strategies for managing your divorce guilt in just a moment. But first, let’s talk about compassion. 

As a human being, you know it’s important to have compassion for others. You have probably shown compassion for others before. Maybe you donated to a charity or helped a friend in need. Maybe you offered a listening ear when someone was upset. Why did you do it? Because you care about others. You recognize that nobody is perfect, everyone needs a friend, and everyone deserves a chance.

So, why not care for yourself? You’ve just gone through one of life’s most stressful experiences, after all.

It’s time to turn inward and give the love you’ve shared with others to yourself. We know – easier said than done. Many people excel at showing compassion to others but struggle to give it to themselves.

A self-compassion exercise

Try this exercise to cultivate compassion for yourself:

  1.  Write down the words of compassion you would say to your best friend if they were wrestling with guilt about filing for divorce. Next, write down the words you say to yourself when thinking about your feelings of guilt. Are the two sets of words different? 
  2.  Next, write a letter to yourself in the tone you used for your best friend. Read it several times.
  3.  Put the letter aside for a day or two. Return to the letter, and read it as if you just received it in the mail. Read it several times if you must. Allow the words to truly sink in.

Strategies for managing divorce guilt

Self-compassion is just one strategy you can use to manage your divorce guilt. We think it’s a powerful one. 

There are other strategies you can use to give yourself a break and temper your feelings of guilt. Here are a few of them.

Recognize negative self-talk

Negative self-talk is a hallmark of guilt. Once negative self-talk starts, a negative emotional response ensues. You relive pld feelings of self-judgment and remorse. Your body physically reacts, and your mind follows suit by plummeting into a state of sadness, depression, or anxiety.

Challenge your negative self-talk with positive information

When negative thoughts amp up in your mind, it’s hard to shake them. What you need now are some positive statements that counteract the negative ones. For example, you might say to yourself: “Yes, I filed for divorce. And yes, my spouse was saddened by that. But I didn’t make an aimless decision. I thought about it a lot first. I tried X, Y, and Z. And ultimately, I decided to take care of myself and my needs. There is nothing wrong with that. I did the right thing.”

Be realistic with yourself

Your expectations of yourself may be too high. It’s admirable to strive for perfection, but is anyone really perfect? No … and it’s unrealistic to think otherwise.

You are not perfect, and that’s okay. Acknowledge that, yes, you may have made some mistakes in your relationship. Your mistakes may even have played a role in your divorce. But divorce is never 100% one person’s fault: It’s a two-way street. Your spouse played a role, too. And it’s unrealistic to expect you, a human being, to be a superwoman or superman. You simply cannot do everything perfectly all of the time.

After mistakes are made, the best thing you can do is learn from them. What did you gain from this experience? Learning from past mistakes helps you be better in the future. You still won’t be perfect, but you’ll be better. That’s the best anyone can do.

Take positive action

You can’t undo the past. If you hurt someone with something you said or did – as we all do – you cannot unsay or undo it. But you can do the next-best thing: You can take positive action.

Maybe this means writing a heartfelt letter of apology to your ex. Maybe it entails speaking to them in person and asking them for forgiveness. Maybe it involves embarking on a journey of self-improvement or new learning.

Is there a positive action you can take to help quell your guilt? One that will not only lessen your burden of guilt but also help you grow as a human? When you take positive action, your focus shifts away from past mistakes and the burden of guilt. It moves toward self-improvement, positivity, and hope for the future.

How long does it take to get over a divorce? The timeline is different for everyone, but an oft-quoted figure is two years. So, be gentle with yourself. Give yourself time to grieve and to heal.

How to cope with feelings of shame 

If you're still left feeling bad for what has occurred, you're technically not wrapped up in guilt. Instead, you're wrapped up in shame.

While it’s okay to acknowledge our contribution to the end of a relationship and sit with it for a while, it’s not okay – not good for your health – to remain dance partners with shame. Shame is self-destructive. You can’t stride with confidence into your new life wearing shame’s heavy weight on your shoulders. And yet, a lot of us wrestle with divorce-related shame.

Research-based reasons why we must let shame go

Shame attacks our physical and mental health, leaving us weak and less able to deal with whatever life throws our way. Here are a few scientific studies to back that up.

  • Shame has been linked to post-traumatic stress disorder. This study explores how shame and PTSD are linked.
  • Shame leads to depression, according to this study. In fact, feelings of shame are much more likely to yield feelings of depression than are feelings of guilt.
  • Shame causes stress, and stress kills cognition. This study shows that stress reduces the number of neurons firing in your brain and impairs your thinking.

In other words, to wallow in shame is to make yourself vulnerable to the ravages of posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, and cognitive decline.

“The shift from shame to guilt is crucial. Shame is a state of self-absorption, while guilt is a response inspired by the hurt you have caused another.” – Esther Perel

Actionable ways to release yourself from shame

You know you need to free yourself of this burden, but how do you do it?

1. Think about why you’re stuck

Shame is a normal human emotion, advises trauma and addiction recovery coach Kendra McLaughlin . But it’s not who you are. Without judgment, ask yourself why you continue to feel shame after your divorce. Why are you stuck in this emotion? And, as Kendra says, “Remind your inner critic that you are a work in progress and that you’re navigating the best you can.”

2. Speak kindly to yourself

If you’re stuck in a shame loop, you’re undoubtedly engaging in a lot of negative self-talk. Step back and listen to that nagging voice from a neutral point. Is this the way you’d talk to a friend? No, of course not! So why speak to yourself that way? If you must criticize yourself, make it constructive – and do it gently.

3. Meditate

Shame is a difficult emotion, but it doesn’t have to rule your world. Examine your shame, but don’t judge it. Meditate on it. This guided meditation about shame explores the idea that shame is a negative emotion that will pass and that you can learn and grow from it.

4. Engage in self-care

Self-care can be a lot of things, from scheduling an appointment with a divorce therapist or a life coach to going to bed 15 minutes earlier than usual. Download our worksheet for designing a self-care plan, and commit to nurturing yourself rather than berating yourself.

5. Find like-minded friends

With a divorce rate of around 40% in the U.S., you are definitely not alone, even if you feel that way. Surround yourself, literally or virtually, with others in similar situations. You can find an online support group through a site like You can find social media groups for like-minded individuals as well. You might also enjoy reading about the lives of others in your situation and learning what they have to say. If so, check out our list of books to read about healing after divorce.

6. Accept yourself

You are human. You tried your best. Now, you’re turning an uncomfortable situation into a growth experience. Good for you. The philosopher Nietzsche said, “What do you regard as most humane? To spare someone shame.” If this resonates with you, take it with you. Keep it in mind the next time you feel negative emotions creeping in. Embrace the guilt, but send the shame packing. You owe it to yourself. And you can’t afford not to.

Your well-being depends on this

If your best friend were grappling with feelings of guilt and shame, would you want them to punish themselves with self-inflicted violence, pain, or worse? We’re guessing the answer is no. As we’ve discussed, it’s important to counter your negative self-talk with positive self-talk if for no other reason than the fact that you would not dream of saying unkind or unsupportive things to your best friend.

A meta-analysis of 30 studies found a positive correlation between feelings of shame and self-harm. What does this mean? People who hold on to shame may have a higher chance of inflicting harm upon themselves. Is this something you want for your best friend? Of course not. So why would you want it for yourself?

Bodily harm isn’t the only threat to people suffering guilt and shame. Affective disorders like depression can also result. In addition, researchers have found that people who already are experiencing depression and low self-esteem may be more prone to guilt. So, ask yourself this:

  • Have my prior life experiences contributed to my propensity for guilt now?
  • Did I have early life experiences of shame or guilt thrust upon me? 
  • Did my early relationships with adults or peers induce feelings of guilt or shame in me?

In other words, your feelings of guilt and shame may have less to do with the issue you’re dealing with now and more to do with unresolved issues from your past. If that’s the case, you have a very good reason not only to prioritize self-care right now but also to get professional help from a therapist who can help you identify past experiences or patterns of thought that continue to hurt you now.

Read: How to Find the Right Therapist during or after Divorce

At Hello Divorce, we care about what you're going through, and we know it's not easy. Our goal is to lighten to load of divorcing people so they can successfully and happily move on to their next chapter. If you'd like to chat with one of our account coordinators about the services we provide, click here to schedule a free 15-minute introductory call.


Shame and PTSD Symptoms. American Psychological Association.
Shame, guilt, and depressive symptoms: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin.
Stress weakens prefrontal networks: molecular insults to higher cognition. Nature Neuroscience.
An examination of the relationship between shame, guilt and self-harm: A systematic review and meta-analysis. National Library of Medicine.
Working with Guilt and Shame. Cambridge University Press.


Founder, CEO & Certified Family Law Specialist
Mediation, Divorce Strategy, Divorce Insights, Legal Insights
After over a decade of experience as a Certified Family Law Specialist, Mediator and law firm owner, Erin was fed up with the inefficient and adversarial “divorce corp” industry and set out to transform how consumers navigate divorce - starting with the legal process. By automating the court bureaucracy and integrating expert support along the way, Hello Divorce levels the playing field between spouses so that they can sort things out fairly and avoid missteps. Her access to justice work has been recognized by the legal industry and beyond, with awards and recognition from the likes of Women Founders Network, TechCrunch, Vice, Forbes, American Bar Association and the Pro Bono Leadership award from Congresswoman Barbara Lee. Erin lives in California with her husband and two children, and is famously terrible at board games.