Guilt is a feeling people typically have after doing something wrong, intentionally or accidentally. A person’s sense of guilt usually relates to their moral code.
Guilt is not necessarily bad. Sometimes it is even productive. Feeling bad after making a mistake can lead to change, such as an apology or a decision to make different choices in the future. A “guilty pleasure” can be described as something harmless a person enjoys even if they feel they should not or are embarrassed about their deeds.
But guilt is something helpful. It can cause physical symptoms such as self-doubt, decreasing self-esteem, decreasing self-confidence and shame. It can be difficult to overcome these feelings, especially in the case of chronic guilt. But it is possible with help.
It’s not always easy to understand what guilt is. In fact, guilt and shame are often confused with each other, though they are distinct emotions.
Guilt describes a sense of regret or responsibility that relates to actions taken. People may feel guilty over things they actually did wrong, things they believe were their fault, or things they have no responsibility for.People tend to only feel guilty over actions they see “bad” or “wrong”. Some people experience chronic guilt, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy. This type of guilt leads to destructive actions instead of positive change. People might manipulate others with what is known as a guilt trip by using a person’s guilty feeling as a tool against them to do what they want.
Someone who feels guilty about something they did might take steps to correct their mistakes, apologies, or otherwise make amends. This usually causes feeling of guilt to decrease.
But shame, which describes a regret or sense of responsibility that relates to the self, can be more difficult to address. It is not always easy to reduce the feeling of shame, specially shame that is not fully understood. People sometimes feel ashamed of some part of themselves without knowing why. A person might feel shame when other people know about actions they feel guilty over.Shame can cause people to feel unworthy or somehow inadequate. It may lead to isolation, act of self punishment or other potential harmful behaviours.
“Guilt is just as powerful, but its influence is positive, while shame is destructive. Shame erodes our courage and fuels disengagements.”
– Beren Brown
Guilt is a conditioned emotion. In other words, people are conditioned to feel guilty. Certain factors may make it more likely for a person to experience chronic or excessive guilt. These factors may include their culture, family or religious upbringing. If parents constantly make a child feel guilty or constantly withhold praise, for example, the child may come to feel that nothing they do is ever good enough. This may lead to a guilt complex.
People who struggle to overcome feelings of chronic get it may have a higher risk of depression, anxiety or other mental health concerns. People who have mental health issues may, in turn, become overwhelmed by guilty feeling about their mental state or related behaviours.
Guilt that relates to past mistakes of failures can set a person up for continued struggles. Sometimes, guilt can also keep a person from having a fulfilling relationship with others.
Various sources can contribute to guilt:
A child generally learns about “right” and “wrong” from family members, specially parents. When a child misbehaves, parents usually express disappointment and issue a consequence. Knowing their parents are disappointed may trigger a feeling of regret. The child may want to do whatever they can to win back approval from their parents.
When a person‘s culture holds that a certain behaviour is wrong a person may feel guilty even if their own moral tells them that there is nothing wrong with the behaviour. A guilt culture emphasises the effects of a person’s behaviour on others and connects this to how that person is viewed by others. When a person’s actions cause others harm or distress, that person loses societal respect. Until they make amends, they are often seen as “disgrace” in the eyes of society. Engage cultures, fixing the mistake, apologising or somehow making amends can repair the damage.
- Religious beliefs
Some religious traditions emphasise on guilt more than others. If a person’s actions I am not in line with the teachings of the religion, guilt often stems from their belief that a divine power knows their actions and holds them accountable. This often drives a person to confess their wrongs, repent and do something to fix the wrong. The idea of a “guilty conscience” or an internal voice that tells someone when they have done wrong, is not strictly religious but it is often part of religious traditions. A person who feels guilty maybe urged by this internal voice to somehow fix their mistakes.
Guilt can result from worrying what other people will think about certain beliefs or behaviour. In this way, society can have a big impact on a person’s sense of guilt. Knowing that other people may see and judge actions can affect a person‘s choice. This guilt can be good, as it supports the social norms or moral rules people generally follow.
People with unresolved guilt might feel irritable or always on edge. They may be overly clingy or apologetic. Feelings of guilt also often manifest as physical symptoms. These might include:
- Insomnia or trouble sleeping.
- An upset stomach, nausea or other digestive issues.
- Stomach pain
- Muscle tension
- Head pain
Guilt is an emotion, so rather than thinking of it as something good or bad, it may be more helpful to consider its effects. Because guilt relates to a person‘s moral code, guilt can act as a sort of check that has someone to recognise the effects of choices they have made. If the choice had a negative impact, they might feel regret and decide to do better in the future.
Consider a person who runs over the red light signal. If nothing happens he is relieved. “No one was there, I did not get caught”, a person might think. But then they might think about other possibilities. “What if I hit another car? What if someone was crossing the street and I could not stop in time?” They may begin to feel bad when considering other things that could have happened and tell themselves they will be more careful in future.
In this way guilt is linked to empathy and a feeling of responsibility for how actions affect others. People who are more prone to guilt were more likely to be trustworthy. When a person’s action affects others, they are more likely to act in ways that are sensitive for the effect of their choices.
Sometimes guilt can become so strong that it makes it difficult for a person to get through each day. They may struggle to connect with their loved ones, maintain a relationship or stay focused at work or school. Over time, they may also have feelings of anxiety and depression, or struggle to recognise their own self worth.People try to cope with guilt by rationalising their actions or telling themselves the behaviour did not really matter. This can help ease the guilt temporarily. But if guilt is not addressed, it is unlikely to go away for good.
Talking over what happened with the trusted friend or loved one can help reduce guilt. Owing up to a mistake and apologising maybe enough to ease guilty feeling, in some cases.
But when feeling of guilt affects daily life for relationships. It is important to reach out for help. A therapist cannot fix your mistakes or change you. They can help you work through emotions and explore ways to create change. Therapists also help normalise the guilt. If you feel worthless or believe you are a bad person, therapist or counsellor can help you come to terms with the fact that every person makes mistakes from time to time.
Most people experience guilt sometimes it does not fully go away. A person who makes a mistake may continue to feel guilty throughout life, even if they apologise, fix the damage and are forgiven for the harm they cause. Therapy can help address these feelings.
Having self compassion can also help. Self compassion practice can be learnt in therapy, but it is also possible to develop greater self compassion alone. Several self compassion exercises that can be helpful when working with guilty feelings.
- Take a break. During the break accept what you are feeling. Accept that it is tough or challenging. Then ask yourself how you can take care of yourself right then.
- Ask yourself how you would treat a friend experiencing the same struggle. What would you say to that friend? Try using the same words for yourself.
- Write a letter or journal entry to yourself, offering acceptance, love and compassion.
- Reframe negative self talk. Instead of reminding yourself about your mistakes and how bad it was, Simply agree that you messed up and tell yourself you will do better next time.
Remind yourself about what you have learnt or how you have grown as a result of choices you made. If your choice had any positive effect, it might help you remind yourself of those two. Remember that guilt is not necessarily a bad thing.