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Are You Letting Guilt Get to You?

A new study shows how to turn off the switch that causes guilt about guilt.

It’s safe to say that no one likes to feel guilty. As a motivator, guilt may not be the best approach, but at least it can potentially alter your behavior to make a bad feeling go away. Instead of putting it off, you reply to someone’s email right away. Rather than be late, you make sure you arrive on time for an important meeting or just a lunch with a friend. You don't procrastinate, but instead follow through on a promise to get something done for your partner.

At times, however, it’s impossible to avoid the experience of guilt. Perhaps you’ve been rushing to get everything packed and ready for vacation, and it’s clear you won’t make an important deadline before you leave. Throughout what’s supposed to be unencumbered fun in the sun or a backpacking adventure through the woods, stray feelings of guilt penetrate into your consciousness on an all too regular basis.

There are other times when your guilty feelings show up after you become aware of some failing in your behavior. You didn’t realize how much you hurt your friend’s feelings with what you thought was a humorous remark, but was instead taken as a cruel insult. It took years for your friend to share this reaction with you. As you learn this dismaying news, you wonder how you could be so insensitive. How many other people have you offended unintentionally? Pangs of remorse and shame mix with that inevitable sensation of guilt along with a vow on your part never to be so unkind again.

As unpleasant as guilt can be, what can be even worse is the guilt you can start to feel about feeling guilty. On that vacation, as you wrestle with your having failed to fulfill your pre-trip to-do list, you become annoyed with yourself for allowing that guilt to get to you. You deserve this vacation, and you can finish whatever it was when you get back, your rational mind tells you. Still, those pangs just won't disappear.

It’s this guilt about guilt that becomes part of the “meta-emotions” investigated by in a recent study by Washington University in St. Louis researchers Natasha Bailen and colleagues (2019). Defining a meta-emotion as “secondary emotions that occur in response to other primary emotions,” or MEE (p. 776), Bailen and her fellow researchers suggest that this response to an emotion doesn’t need to match the primary emotion. You can feel guilty about being happy, for example, when you learn of a foe’s misfortune. Separating the primary from the secondary emotion, you can have all four combinations of emotions and their associated MEE’s (Negative-Positive, Positive-Positive, Negative-Negative, Positive-Negative). Guilt about guilt falls in the category of Negative-Negative, or “NN.” Most meta-emotions, the authors believe are either NN or PP (Positive-Positive).

Following from the increasingly-accepted cognitive view of emotions, Bailen et al. regard MEE’s as the result of an appraisal process in which your feeling results from the way you construed a situation. If you believe, as many people do, in the hedonic view of emotions, which dictates that it’s important to feel happy, you will try to increase your PPs. The NNs occur when your negative emotion violates this general belief. According to the Washington University authors, people with a depressive disorder should be particularly vulnerable to this experience because they find it difficult to accept the negative emotions that they “should” not be experiencing, according to the general hedonic principle. Feelings of guilt are one criterion of major depressive disorder, so the question is whether these feelings are NNs or just “N’s.”

Beilen and her colleagues put these concepts about meta-emotions to the test by drawing upon a community-based sample of 72 adults (20-79 years old/average age of 39). These participants completed two laboratory sessions, one week apart. At the first session, participants learned how, in the intervening days, to record their emotions over the subsequent seven-day period. They provided those ratings via an app that prompted them to state how they were feeling throughout the day with questions such as, “I feel angry about feeling sad.”

Raters decided if the response was (a) a feeling state and (b) whether it was positive or negative, through a carefully-constructed word rating system. Participants were also asked, at each prompt, to indicate whether they were paying attention to how they were feeling at the time, as well as how clear they were about those feelings. The research team administered questionnaires during the second lab session, including measures of depressive symptoms. Those whose ratings during the week showed they were high in depressive or anxiety symptoms also completed diagnostic interviews at the time of that second testing.

Simple counts of MEE’s showed that they were relatively common, with more than half (53%) of the participants reporting at least one episode. The average occurrence was 6% of all assessments; in other words, 6% of the time the participants had feelings they prompted MEEs. The most frequent MEE was of the NN variety, with 46% stating that they indeed felt bad about feeling bad. The remaining MEE’s were far lower, with rates of 18% (PP), 15% (NP), and 8% (PN). Thus, people seem most likely to feel bad about feeling badly than they feel badly are about feeling good. The findings also revealed that the level of depressive symptoms seemed to play a role in producing NNs, although it is also possible that the NNs led to the depressive symptoms.

The fact that the NPs and PPs did not differ in frequency suggests that the quality of the emotion doesn’t seem to matter in producing a positive MEE; people can feel as good about having a negative emotion as they do about having a positive one. The authors interpret this finding as contradicting the hedonic theory of emotional regulation. It is possible that people feel positively about a negative emotion because they somehow recognize it as appropriate. You might not feel badly if you realize that some situations call for negative feelings. Returning to the earlier example of hurting a friend unintentionally with an insulting remark, perhaps you can see the silver lining of having learned to take care when making a joke at someone else's expense. You might also, going back to the vacation example, learn not to make promises you can't keep.

Overall, the high frequency of NNs suggests that of all the emotions to stick with you after the feeling has passed, it’s the negative ones that carry the most weight. Furthermore, people who do feel plagued by those negative-negative sequences were found, by the Washington University researchers, to be more likely to experience depressive symptoms.

What were those negative emotions like, then? How did guilt figure into the picture? Among this sample, “frustrated” and “disappointed” made it to the top of the primary emotion list, with “guilt” and “sadness” taking the two top spots in secondary emotions. What triggers these secondary emotions, it appears further, is the individual’s attentiveness to his or her own emotional state. If you’re oblivious to your emotions, in other words, you’ll be less likely to notice how they make you feel at that “meta” level. Importantly, the authors believe that the process can change along with the situation. There was no effect of the “trait” of emotional sensitivity on meta-emotional experiences but instead, these MEE's seemed to have more of a fleeting, state-like quality.

If you’re stuck in an NN cycle of guilt, the Bailen et al. study suggests that the key to avoid having guilt get to you is to separate the secondary feeling of guilt from the original emotion that provoked those feelings. The next time you’re feeling guilty, stop and ask yourself the same question that the researchers asked of participants. Do you feel guilty about feeling frustrated in some way? Do you feel guilty because you’re disappointed in yourself? As the authors concluded, people “must first be able to identify when meta-emotional experiences are occurring before they can reduce their occurrence.” The emotion of guilt, when appropriate, can perhaps allow you to remedy a bad situation created by your own actions. When it’s thrown on top of another emotion or another emotion-provoking experience, it would seem to have less of an adaptive effect.

To sum up, your emotional life can involve a wide variety of feelings, many of which can enhance your ability to enjoy your experiences. Learning how to pull the plug on unproductive feelings of guilt can only help widen that enjoyment.


Bailen, N. H., Wu, H., & Thompson, R. J. (2019). Meta-emotions in daily life: Associations with emotional awareness and depression. Emotion, 19(5), 776–787. doi:10.1037/emo0000488.supp (Supplemental)

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