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, but when all is said and done, 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, but 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 (Fischer, Shaver, & Carnochan, 1990).
Like other emotions, there is no one explanation for guilt. The traditional Freudian view is that guilt resides under the 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 (as well as 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. Freud’s disciple, Erik Erikson, took a somewhat dim view of Freud’s emphasis on sexuality as the only force in development and therefore took issue with Freud's notion of guilt. Instead, Erikson believed that guilt first emerges in life around ages 3-5 as the negative outcome to a period he called “initiative vs. guilt.” Children develop a strong sense of guilt at this age as the polar opposite of playfulness. They are afraid to express themselves with their toys because they fear that if they showed their true emotions, they would commit an unacceptable act. They grow up to be overly inhibited adults who constantly fear doing something for which they’d later feel guilty.
If you don’t like the psychodynamic approach to guilt, perhaps you’ll find the cognitive explanation a bit more palatable. From a cognitive 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 emotion of guilt 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.” 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 mental set and more realistically figure out your role in whatever grief came their way.
Armed with this background, let’s examine 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 own ethical or moral code, such as by 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.
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, in these cases, may be a sign of psychopathy. The problems occur when you ruminate over this guilt; it is better to accept the fact that it 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 to keep on the up and up. Finally, because of our natural tendency toward egocentrism, 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 have had less of a negative impact than you think.
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 own moral code or engage in behavior that is dishonest, unfaithful, or illegal. Like Jimmy Carter, you may have mentally lusted after someone other than your spouse or long-term partner. This is a tough type of guilt to handle. It’s true that you didn’t actually commit the act, and 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 guilt-provoking.
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. 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.
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 even 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.
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 yourself seem more at fault than you are, it’s time for a hearty dose of reality testing.
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.
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, this kind of 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 wants the student to succeed (and thus bring honor to the family), but this logic is lost on the student.
The only way to cure yourself of survivor guilt is to remind yourself of 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.
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.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, 2012
Fischer, K. W., Shaver, P. R., & Carnochan, P. (1990). How emotions develop and how they organise development. Cognition And Emotion, 4(2), 81-127. doi:10.1080/0269993900840714