All day, every day, we all experience hundreds of emotions. Some are positive, some are negative, and all serve a purpose. Emotions prompt us into action by organizing and motivating our response. Emotions can be broken down in a number of ways. All emotions start with a prompting event, which is then interpreted. an emotional experience that occurs when a person believes or realizes—accurately or not—that he or she has compromised his or her own standards of conduct or has violated a universal moral standard and bears significant responsibility for that violation. Guilt is closely related to the concept of remorse.
For example, if you lose your job, you may interpret that to mean several things, such as: “I did not perform my duties well.” This interpretation prompts internal changes within our body, such as increased heart rate, becoming flushed, or shaking. These internal responses also lead to action urges, which we then act upon, such as crying, yelling, or escaping the situation.
After we act, there are after-effects, such as feeling distracted. This process generally happens very quickly and can be categorized as sadness or anger.
Primary Versus Secondary Emotions:
A primary emotion is a direct reaction to a prompting event.
Secondary emotions are those we feel about our primary emotions.
For example, after failing a test, a person may feel disappointed. However, if the person feels guilty for then letting his or her parent down for failing the test, guilt is the secondary emotion because it is guilt about the disappointment.
What is Guilt?
Guilt is one of the most complex emotions that we feel. It is almost always a secondary emotion in response to a primary emotional response. Guilt is often a response to a perceived decrease in social standing. Guilt often motivates behavior related to social expectations in that it “punishes” us for socially unacceptable behavior. Guilt is defined as a deep feeling of remorse for an act which may or may not have occurred in the past. Therefore, guilt becomes a past experience which is renewed in the present moment.
When it comes to guilt, Freud was the expert, but he certainly didn’t have a corner on the market. Guilt comes in many forms and it can be boiled down to a set of five basic types. You’ll learn what those five types are, but first, let’s take a look at how psychologists define guilt.
Guilt is, first and foremost, an emotion. You may think of guilt as a good way to get someone to do something for you out of a sense of obligation. Guilt is not a very good motivator. It’s more accurate to think of guilt as an internal state. In the overall scheme of emotions, guilt is in the general category of negative feeling states. It’s one of the “sad” emotions, which also include agony, grief, and loneliness, according to one comprehensive framework.
Like other emotions, there is no one explanation for guilt. The traditional Freudian view is that guilt resides under the surface veneer of our behavior. The psychodynamic theory of Freud proposes that we build defense mechanisms to protect us from the guilt we would experience if we knew just how awful our awful desires really were. Specifically, Freud linked the feeling of guilt, and its related emotion of anxiety, to the Oedipal stage of psychosexual development. Young children, he believed, desire having sex with their opposite-sex parent. Eventually, these desires become submerged and transformed into sexual attraction toward others of their own age.
From a cognitive/behavioral point of view, guilt is an emotion that people experience because they’re convinced they’ve caused harm. In cognitive theory, the thoughts cause the emotions. The guilt of emotion follows directly from the thought that you are responsible for someone else’s misfortune, whether or not this is the case. People who experience guilt on a chronic basis, according to the cognitive perspective, mistakenly suffer under the illusion that they have caused other people harm. Their negative emotion follows from their tendency to misinterpret what happens to them and not to question the logic of their conclusions.
In cognitive therapy, treatment often involves teaching people to rid themselves of their “automatic thoughts” that they’ve caused others to suffer. People constantly plagued by guilt are also taught to recognize their “dysfunctional attitudes” so that they recognize when they’re going through such mental processes as catastrophizing (making the very worst of a bad situation) or overgeneralizing (believing that if one bad thing happened, many more must have as well).
In contrast to the psychodynamic view of guilt, the cognitive perspective gives the average person some clues for fixing the tendency to blame yourself for everything that goes wrong. According to the cognitive view, if you change your thoughts, you can change your emotions. Once you realize that you’re inaccurately seeing yourself as causing others to suffer, you can readjust your mindset and more realistically figure out your role in whatever grief came their way.
What Does Guilt Feel Like?
Guilt can be categorized by the following feelings, according to Emotional Competency:
- Feeling badly about your actions
- Failure to meet another’s standard of behavior
- Transgressing a moral imperative
- Having empathy but not acting from empathy
- Dissatisfaction from our assessment of a decrease in social acceptance or contribution
- Failing to prevent harm to another
- Not meeting your responsibility to others
These emotions continue, providing the following guilt-cycle (per Emotional Competency):
Starting at a neutral state, an incident occurs in which you fail to meet your own standards, others’ standards, or there is a dissatisfaction based on your own assessment. Guilt is the feeling that corresponds with the interpretation of the incident.
How Do I Remediate Guilt?
In order to remediate your guilt, the following are recommended:
Accept Responsibility: Feel remorse, understand what you did wrong, and take responsibility
Remorse: Genuinely feeling bad about what has happened, assess the situation
Restitution: Improve and avoid future mistakes, apologize, and make appropriate reparations to injured parties.
Failure to do so may lead to inaction or denial, in which the other party or other circumstances are blamed.
What Are The Five Types of Guilt?
Armed with this background, let’s examine the five types of guilt and—more importantly—how you can cope when guilty feelings come your way.
Guilt Cause #1: Guilt for something you did. The most obvious reason to feel guilty is that you actually did something wrong. This type of guilt may involve harm to others, such as causing someone physical or psychological pain. You may also feel guilty because you violated your personal ethical or moral code, such as cheating, lying, or stealing. Guilt over your own behavior can also be caused by doing something you swore you would never do again (such as smoking, drinking, or overeating). In each of these cases, there’s no doubt that the behavior occurred.
This is Healthy Guilt: The result when you knowingly have done something wrong.
It’s appropriate to feel guilty when you’ve done something wrong. Feeling the emotion of guilt for an action deserving of remorse is normal; to not feel guilty, may be a sign of psychopathy. The problems occur when you ruminate over this guilt. An action in the past cannot be changed, no matter how much you wish it would. Accept the fact that this happened, apologize to the person or persons you harmed, and then figure out how to avoid committing the same act in the future. If you’ve violated your own personal standards (such as through overuse of alcohol or cheating on your partner), you can best avoid straying in the future by seeking support from others who can help you rid yourself of this habit or help you to keep on the up and up. Finally, because of our natural tendency toward ego-centrism, we assume that others place far more importance on our thoughts and actions than they actually do. The behavior over which you are tormented by guilt, such as inadvertently insulting a friend, may hardly have even penetrated that friend’s consciousness.
Dealing With Guilt Cause #1: It’s completely normal to experience guilt in these scenarios – whether you harm yourself or someone else. If you didn’t feel any guilt in these scenarios, then this could be an indication of a deeper and more complex psychological problem. To overcome guilt in this situation, it’s important to accept that whatever happened has happened and there is nothing you can do to change it. The best way to deal with guilt is to accept it, apologize, and prevent it from happening again.
If your reason for guilt was caused by overstepping your boundaries, morals or ethics, such as overusing alcohol or drugs, lying or cheating, the easiest way to prevent these issues from happening again is to get rid of these habits. Some ways to do this is to seek professional help or seek support from a friend or family member.
Guilt Cause #2: Guilt for something you didn’t do, but want to. You’re thinking about committing an act in which you deviate from your moral code or engage in behavior that is dishonest, unfaithful, or illegal. This is a tough type of guilt to handle. It’s true that you didn’t actually commit the act, so you’re still sitting on the moral high ground. However, we all know that the very fact that you’re contemplating an act that violates your own standards can be as guilt-provoking as the act itself. If you’re beating yourself up for these forbidden and taboo thoughts, you can try the good old Freudian defense mechanism of repression (where you stop up the hidden desire) or denial (where you don’t acknowledge it). However, this is unlikely to lead to a satisfactory outcome because by defending against your feelings, you may actually fall prey to them and behave in a way that gives you a reason to feel guilty. An approach called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) provides some guidance for how you can cope with this type of guilt. You can recognize that you have these illicit thoughts, accept them as part of who you are right now, and then, commit yourself to changing your behavior so that you don’t follow through on them. Rather than shove them under the surface, you can embrace your illicit thoughts and desires and work on reducing them through conscious effort.
Dealing With Guilt #2: f you are feeling guilty for having wrong or immoral thoughts, then it is best to accept these thoughts are part of the present. Then, make a plan to change them to prevent yourself from actually falling victim to your thoughts and committing such act(s). Most people will try to dismiss these thoughts, repress them, or “shove them under the rug.” However, this isn’t the healthiest way to deal with these thoughts. These thoughts can eventually lead you actually to commit them. The best way to deal with them is to accept that you through them and then make a conscious effort to reduce the power of those thoughts as well as the effects on you.
“False” Guilt. Emotional complexes can be just that – complex. Most people experience unhappiness due to their own irrational and incorrect thoughts about themselves, others, and the world.
Sometimes we experience guilt even when we think we did something wrong. In these cases, we might feel just as guilty as if we did something wrong. For example, we might think of a rival coworker losing his or her job, or secretly hope that a friend’s or ex’s relationship fails. These thoughts often derive from our vengeful wishes, but we know deep down inside that these thoughts are illogical in some way. However, it is still difficult to negate these beliefs and thoughts.
In some severe cases, you haven’t done anything wrong, but have convinced themselves that they did. Believe it or not, this can happen easily, especially when intense emotions and feelings are involved.
Guilt Cause #3: Guilt for something you think you did. As cognitive theories of emotions tell us, much of the unhappiness we experience is due to our own irrational thoughts about situations. If you think you did something wrong, you can experience almost as much guilt as if you actually committed the act — or more. One fairly typical cognitive source of guilt is the magical belief that you can jinx people by thinking about them in a negative or hurtful way. Perhaps you’ve wished that a romantic rival would experience some evil twist of fate. Should that evil twist of fate come to pass, you may, at some level, believe that it was due to your own vengeful wish. At some level, you “know” that you’re being illogical, but it’s hard to rid yourself completely of this belief. We also know that our memory for past events is highly flawed. It’s possible for you to have done nothing wrong at all but to misremember and think that you did, particularly when there are highly charged feelings involved. Suspects can have false memories implanted into them that convince them that they not only were at the scene of a crime but actually committed it.
Before you start accusing yourself of wrongdoing, make sure that the wrongdoing actually took place. If you’re distorting your recollection of events to make you seem more at fault than you are, it’s time for a hearty dose of reality testing.
Compassion Guilt. There are situations when people feel like they can’t help another person enough. For example, consider a friend or family member who has recently gotten divorced or who has passed away. You have devoted your time to be there for your friend or family as often as possible, but it’s time to return to your responsibilities, such as work or even caring for your own family. As a result, you begin to feel guilty because you can’t live up to the expectations that you set for yourself in supporting them.
Psychologists refer to these situations that lead to guilt as compassion fatigue. These situations can lead to burnout for two reasons:
1) because trying to care for another while also caring for yourself and your obligations is extremely challenging
2) overwhelming guilt. The overwhelming feeling of guilt coupled with fatigue leads to compassion fatigue
Guilt Cause #4: Guilt that you didn’t do enough to help someone. Perhaps you have a friend who is very ill or who is caring for an ill relative. You’ve given hours of your free time to help that person, but now you have other obligations that you absolutely must fulfill. Or perhaps your neighbors suffered a tragic loss such as the death of a relative or fire that destroyed their home. You’ve offered days and weeks of your free time but, again, you find you can’t continue to do so. The guilt now starts to get to you and you try desperately to figure out ways to help them despite the toll it’s taking on you. Psychologists use the term compassion fatigue to capture this feeling of burnout. Though used typically to describe professional helpers, it can also occur among people who offer continued informal support to others in need. Adding to the overall emotional drain of the situation is the guilt you overlay on top of the fatigue because you think you should be doing more.
You can decide or not whether you want to continue to make the sacrifices needed to help these individuals. However, it’s important to separate your desire to help from the guilt you fear will overwhelm you if you don’t. Acting out of guilt can only drain you further and ultimately make you a less effective helper.
Dealing With Guilt #4: Guilt can be overpowering, so before you get down on yourself for doing something wrong, be sure to ask yourself if you did something wrong or if you only think you did. Distorting your memory of events can only make it seem like you were at fault.
Guilt Cause #5: Guilt that you’re doing better than someone else. The experience of survivor guilt is recognized by professionals who work with combat veterans who outlive their fellow troops. Survivor guilt also occurs when people who lose families, friends, or neighbors in disasters themselves remain untouched or, at least, alive. Applying not only to people who live when others in the same situation have died, though, survivor guilt also characterizes those who make a better life for themselves than do their family or friends. First-generation college students, for example, often feel torn by conflicting emotions about their success in school. They want to do well (and their families want them to also), but the students themselves feel guilty that they are getting opportunities that their parents or siblings did not. To “protect” their family members, they may engage in self-destructive behaviors that ensure they won’t make it in school. Logic would dictate that the family truly want the student to succeed (and thus bring honor to the family), but this logic is lost on the student due to survivor guilt.
The only way to cure yourself of survivor guilt is to remind yourself how proud, glad, and invested those who love and care for you are. Remind yourself, as hard as it might be, that your own failure will not help bring someone back to life, nor will it make others who love you feel better about themselves. You need to gain your inspiration from the knowledge that your efforts are a tribute to them. Don’t get down on yourself if you can’t reach your loftiest goals (or the ones they have or had for you) but at least know that you’re giving yourself the shot at success that they would want you to have.
Dealing With Guilt #5. One way to rid yourself of guilt is to tell yourself that others who love you are happy for you and your success. It’s important to keep in mind purposely failing won’t cure someone’s illness or bring a person back, and it won’t make others love you more or less. Try to think of the knowledge and success that you gained and worked for is a tribute to your family and your roots.
There’s no doubt that guilt is a complex and interesting emotion. It can even cause you to spend more than you want to or can when buying gifts for your friends and family. You can’t live a completely guilt-free life but you can keep it within manageable bounds. Guilt can also help you gain greater self-understanding by helping you to recognize when, in fact, you’ve done someone else harm. Guilt, in and of itself, isn’t a destructive emotion. If you let it become all-consuming, however, guilt can get the best — or the worst — of you.
Other Areas of Guilt:
While guilt has been applied in a general sense, there are several other areas in which guilt is present – most often shame.
For example, people often hold themselves accountable to a higher standard than they would others. This creates a situation in which a person may feel guilty, rather than forgiving themselves as they would others. This also occurs when a person believes incorrectly that all mistakes or negative consequences are preventable.
People also frequently feel guilt associated with loss and bereavement. Feelings that you could have done more, that you should have saved someone, or that you should have said or done something before a death is common. It’s a perception and reaction to feeling like we have failed in our obligations, or that we have done something wrong.
However, understanding that feelings of guilt are a normal part of grief is helpful, in that we all ask “what ifs” and “why” questions. Finally, guilt may be a part of a victimization experience, such as combat, PTSD, and violent crime.
How Can I Manage Guilt and Start to Heal?
- Learn to recognize and identify your feelings of guilt.
- What type of guilt is it?
- What was your role in the wrong-doing, either to yourself or others? Acknowledge and accept it.
- Does feeling guilty provide you with any positive experiences? Are you learning from it? Are you helping others because of it?
- Ask for forgiveness from those you have wronged (this includes forgiving yourself).
- Learn from the situation so you don’t repeat the same mistakes.
- Realize you can’t change the past. Let go of it and move on.
- Disarm thoughts of guilt by thinking or saying “STOP!” and then finding a distraction.
- If your spiritual beliefs include belief in a higher power, think about what He or She has to say about forgiveness.
- Participate in an appropriate support group.
- Be gentle with yourself. What would you say to your best friend in a similar situation? Say the same to yourself.
- Remember the good things you’ve done. Write those things down, hold onto them and read them when you need to.
- Channel your guilt into a worthwhile project. If you’ve learned a lesson from this experience, chances are others can learn from it, too.
Additional Guilt Resources:
Emotional Competency – description of guilt, the cycle of guilt, and guilt resolution
Guilt and Forgiveness – group discussions on guilt and the role of forgiveness in guilt.
Page last audited 7/2018