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What Is Guilt?

Guilt is a normal emotion, though it can be paralyzing for some people. A person may feel guilty for something he did, something he thinks he did, or something he failed to do. When one causes harm to another, guilt is a natural emotional response. Given how uncomfortable guilt can feel, it can provide a strong motivation to apologize, correct or make up for a wrong, and behave more responsibly in the future.

Since it helps preserve social bonds, a moderate amount of guilt can be considered adaptive. A lack of guilt and remorse is one characteristic that experts have used to describe psychopathy.

Many people suffer from excessive or inappropriate guilt. Someone who experiences "survivor's guilt" feels an undeserved sense of guilt after living through a traumatic event while others did not. Negative thoughts can provoke guilt, too: A person who has distressing, unwanted thoughts about harming someone, but who does not act in a way that actually causes any harm, may feel unwarranted guilt.

Excessive guilt can be a feature of certain forms of mental illness, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other conditions.

What's the Difference Between Guilt and Shame?

Shame and guilt are two closely related concepts. While guilt is typically linked to some specific harm, real or perceived, shame comprises negative feelings about one's honor or one's self more generally. A person may feel guilt over a specific harmful act without necessarily experiencing a strong sense of shame.

Certain individuals are especially prone to feelings of shame, which, like feelings of guilt, can be excessive. The tendency to feel shame has been associated with depression, anxiety, and other forms of mental illness.

How to Cope With Guilt

Guilt is a natural response to making a mistake or doing something one later regrets. Some people may attempt to stave off guilt by rationalizing or minimizing the harmful effect that their actions had on others. More helpful, however, is an acknowledgment of the offense, accompanied by an apology if appropriate.

In a case of excessive guilt, it is important to realize that everyone errs and that behaving in a hurtful way doesn’t make someone a bad person; it just makes them human. In the case of survivor’s guilt, or a person who tends to blame themselves for circumstances that are beyond their control, help often involves the person letting go of a false sense of responsibility for what happened, reframing negative self-talk, and developing greater self-compassion. In cases where guilt is driven by a mental health issue or a co-occurring condition, it is important to seek professional help. Sometimes treating the underlying concern can alleviate strong feelings of guilt or shame.

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