Guilt is aversive and—like shame, embarrassment, or pride—has been described as a self-conscious emotion, involving reflection on oneself. People may feel guilt for a variety of reasons, including acts they have committed (or think that they committed), a failure to do something they should have done, or thoughts that they think are morally wrong.
When one causes harm to another, guilt is a natural emotional response. Guilt is self-focused but also highly socially relevant: It’s thought to serve important interpersonal functions by, for example, encouraging the repair of valuable relationships and discouraging acts that could damage them. But in excess, guilt may needlessly burden those who experience it.
Given how uncomfortable guilt can feel, it can provide a strong motivation to apologize, correct or make up for a wrong, and behave responsibly. Since doing so helps preserve social bonds and avoid harm to others, guilt, despite being a “negative” feeling, can sometimes be good. Research suggests that guilt-proneness may be related to empathy as well as trustworthiness.
Not necessarily. The degree to which people feel guilt varies, and those with certain personalities may experience relatively little (if any) guilt. A lack of guilt and remorse is one characteristic that experts have used to diagnose psychopathy.
Shame and guilt are two closely related concepts. While each has been defined in different ways, guilt is typically linked to some specific harm, real or perceived, and shame involves negative feelings about one's self more generally.
Excessive guilt can be a feature of certain forms of mental illness, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The tendency to feel shame has also been associated with depression, anxiety, and other psychological symptoms. Factors such as social stigma related to one’s characteristics may also make shame more likely
Children begin to feel guilt and may try to make up for guilt-inducing acts by their second year, research suggests, though the experience of guilt and associated behaviors appear to continue developing throughout childhood.
Survivor’s guilt (or survivor guilt) is an emotional experience that results from being relatively unharmed by a situation, compared to others. When one emerges from an accident or a conflict alive while others have died, for example, that person may experience survivor’s guilt—despite not being responsible for the others’ deaths.
Feeling guilt after a misdeed is normal and can often be remedied by apologizing and taking steps to make up for whatever pain or offense has been caused. But many feel guilt that is out of proportion to the harm they have caused, or even disconnected from any real harm. In such cases, it may be necessary to reflect on the reasons for one’s feelings of guilt—perhaps in conversation with a counselor or therapist, especially when an underlying mental health condition may be involved.
Though pervasive feelings of guilt are not necessarily a sign of an underlying mental health condition, they can be. Widely used criteria include regular feelings of “excessive or inappropriate guilt” among the symptoms of major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder, and guilt plays a role in other disorders as well. The guilt may be related to repeatedly thinking about minor failures or stem from things that are not actually within a person’s control.
Yes. Someone may feel survivor guilt despite bearing no responsibility for circumstances that have harmed others. People with certain kinds of mental illness may feel unwarranted guilt as part of their condition—such as guilt for “bad” intrusive thoughts, in the case of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
When guilt stems from something you did to someone, apologizing and seeking to avoid repeating your behavior is one clear way to respond and could help you achieve self-forgiveness. But sometimes guilt is unrelated to actual misbehavior or becomes counterproductive. Remedies for unnecessary guilt may include reflecting on factors that were beyond your control, acknowledging what you know now that you didn’t in the past, and considering whether your standards for yourself are too unforgiving.
Yes. Given that guilt can be excessive or undeserved and that guilt can be an aspect of some mental health conditions, therapy can be helpful for addressing intense guilt. There are evidence-supported treatments for depression, for post-traumatic stress disorder, and for other conditions that involve pronounced feelings of guilt (though therapy may be helpful even in the absence of a diagnosed condition).
When someone tries to instill guilt to get another to behave a certain way—an act often associated with mothers and their children—responding with empathy, while also setting limits when necessary, could help in getting out of the guilt trip. That may include acknowledging the importance of what the guilt-tripping person wants while also asking them to express their wants directly and to respect your decisions.