What Is Guilt?

The negative emotion of guilt can be paralyzing for some people. A person can feel guilty for something he did, for something he didn’t do, for something he thought he did, or for not doing enough for another person. Certainly, if a person causes harm to another, then guilt and remorse are natural. This feeling can catalyze a person to apologize, correct the wrong, and do better in the future. These are appropriate reactions. 

Children start feeling the emotion of guilt at around the ages of 3 to 5. Some children suffer greatly from guilt, and are unable to express themselves, carrying this feeling well into adulthood. People who suffer to this degree take on this emotion even when it isn’t warranted. A person who feels badly about, for example, wishing evil thoughts on another, might take their guilt to an extreme. They may suffer excessive rumination or depressive thoughts, which is a surefire recipe for mood disorders. 

Guilt Versus Shame

Shame is guilt's close handmaiden. They are two closely related emotions, though guilt concerns others, and shame is more internal. A person may not have done anything particular, but shame bubbles up within. And a person may feel internally ashamed about themselves, yet does not feel any guilt toward others whatsoever. This is perhaps a function of the person's inner dialogue, one that displaces other thoughts and feelings. Some individuals are overly self-conscious and prone to blame themselves and feel shame. A good example is the obese person, who may feel enormous shame over his weight, feeding a cycle of self-blame, shame, and poor self-regard.

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