What to Do If You Feel Guilty About Success

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Success is something we are told to celebrate when we achieve it, and many of us spend endless years in its pursuit. We study tools to help us be successful and overcome our fears of success, find steps to follow to increase our chances of succeeding, and we work hard to achieve our goals. So it might come as quite the surprise to many of us that, sometimes, we feel overwhelmingly guilty when we do become successful.

If you've experienced guilt around your own success, you're far from alone. It's more common than you think! And there is plenty that you can do to move past these feelings, so that you're able to better enjoy the success you've achieved.

Ahead, we'll examine why we might feel guilty about our success, and what steps we can take to help us settle into the happiness of our accomplishments.

Why You Might Be Feeling Guilty About Success

Feeling guilty is an individual experience, and there are countless places or past experiences your guilt about success could be coming from. These are some of the most common reasons that people feel guilty about success.

You're the First in Your Family To Achieve This Level of Success

If you are the first person in your family to become successful, it may feel like uncharted territory. You might feel that you abandoned your loved ones, or put yourself above them.

For example, studies have shown that when first generation Latinx college students attend college, they feel exactly those things.

College is known for setting individuals up for more success in life than those who aren't able to attend college, so even before the actual success, just the opportunity can be create feelings of guilt.

You Worry Success Came Too Easily

We have so many messages in our culture about having to work hard to succeed. "Buckle down," we tell young people when they aren't working hard enough, or we suggest they "grow up" when they aren't taking life seriously enough.

We associate success with long hours hunched over a desk, or toiling away at a skill. But sometimes, we get lucky, and we find success before many years of hard work have passed.

This can lead to feelings of guilt, because you might worry that you did not put in enough time or effort to be deserving of the success you've achieved.

Many Other Talented People Are Less Successful

Just like we can get lucky and become successful before many years of hard work have come to pass, there is also no saying why one person achieves success and another equally-talented person does not.

If you become successful, you might feel guilty because you know others who are still struggling. You might feel that those others are just as talented as you are, and work just as hard as you do.

This can be difficult to process, and can make you question whether you are truly deserving of the success you're experiencing.

What to Do If You Feel Guilty About Success

Fortunately, there are solutions for difficult feelings. While a small amount of guilt can be a useful motivator in life and can help you do things like have better attendance at work, there's no benefit to being unable to enjoy your success due to feeling guilty about it.

So, let's look at a few ways to deal with this kind of guilt.

Understand That Your Feelings Are Normal

It may seem simple, but the first step to getting over any problem is to acknowledge it, and to know that you aren't alone in it. Guilt can be hard to talk about, and it can lead to a lot of shame.

That, in turn, can be a terrible spiral in which you feel guilty of your success and then ashamed of your guilt, making you feel progressively worse.

Understand that feeling guilty about success happens to many other people, not just you. It's normal, and it's OK. Guilt is a feeling, and it doesn't need to take over your entire world. Allow yourself to feel the guilt, rather than trying to fight it nonstop, so that you can begin to move past it.

Sit With Your Feelings

Once you understand that it's perfectly normal and acceptable to feel guilty about success, and you allow yourself to experience the feeling, it's time to work through it.

One helpful way to move through your feelings can be to journal about them. Journaling can help ease anxiety, and guilt can be pretty anxiety inducing.

Being able to sit in your feelings of guilt can also help you to understand just how strong they are. They might dissipate quickly once you allow yourself to experience them. If so, that's great! However, they might not.

One occurrence that you want to avoid is developing a guilt complex, in which you experience so much guilt that it overtakes your life. By allowing yourself time in your feelings, you should be able to discern how big or small your guilt issue is.

Use Your Success to Help Others, Too

One of the greatest things about success is that you don't have to keep it to yourself. As a bonus, the act of doing charitable deeds makes the doers of them feel better, too, not just the people who receive the good deeds.

The simple act of performing charitable work for another person increases our happiness. In turn, being happier will help you experience less guilt.

It isn't just about how prosocial behavior helps you to be happy, though. When you're successful, you can show others how to do what you did. You can tutor, mentor, or otherwise assist people who want to be successful too.

The ability to see how your success can help others directly can be hugely relieving to your feelings of guilt. Knowing that you are helping others can make you feel wonderful, and it can reassure you that you're using your success in the best way possible.

Talk About Your Feelings

When you notice that you're experiencing guilt and acknowledging it, sitting with it, or acting to help others isn't alleviated it completely, you still have more options.

First, you can talk to a friend or loved one. This can be helpful because when you feel stuck in your emotions, sharing them with others can be a way to become unstuck. You might be surprised at how quickly your guilty feelings lessen once you have opened up about them.

How Therapy Can Help

If talking to a friend or loved one just isn't doing enough to help reduce your feelings of guilt about success, it makes sense to consider talking to a professional. A therapist can work wonders with helping you delve deeper into why you're feeling what you are, and how you can move past it. Sometimes the answer to a problem is outside of our reach, and we need professional assistance. There is nothing at all wrong with that! No matter what type of therapy you think you might prefer, what type of insurance you do or don't have, or where you live, there are therapy options for you.

A Word From Verywell 

Feeling guilty about success can be frustrating. No one wants to waste their time feeling guilty, period, let alone feeling guilty about something great in their life. Know that you can get to the bottom of this issue, and you can move past it. Once you do, your success can be something you feel great about!

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Moreno R. The guilt of success: looking at latino first-generation college students’ experience of leaving home. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education. 2021 Apr;20(2):213–31.

  2. Stanford Graduate School of Business. Clarifying the link between job satisfaction and absenteeism: the role of guilt proneness.

  3. Lai W, Yang Z, Mao Y, Zhang Q, Chen H, Ma J. When do good deeds lead to good feelings? Eudaimonic orientation moderates the happiness benefits of prosocial behavior. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Jun;17(11):4053.

By Ariane Resnick, CNC
Ariane Resnick, CNC is a mental health writer, certified nutritionist, and wellness author who advocates for accessibility and inclusivity.