Guilty Feelings: What Is A Guilt Complex? And 5 Signs You Have One

Updated October 5, 2022by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Many different reasons can cause guilt. Each person feels and experiences guilt differently. There are situations in which one feels guilty that they may not the same sentiments when discussed with your friend or colleague. Feelings of guilt are more subjective emotions. So, your moral code has a huge role to play in developing a sense of guilt.

Although there is the environmental factor, the way the person was brought up and the people the person associated with influences the kinds of guilt that an individual would have. All elements have parts to play in the development of a guilty complex. According to psychologists, five different situations cause guilt.

Read on to learn more about the five different types of guilt complexes, some common signs to help you determine if you have one, what to do about it, and the common questions people have about guilt.

What Is A Guilt Complex?

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According to the Cambridge English dictionary, Guilt is defined as: “a feeling of worry or unhappiness that you have because you have done something wrong, such as harming another person.” The wrong could either be real or imagined in this case. When you do something wrong, or think you did something wrong, you feel bad about it and maybe try to remedy the situation. That’s guilt.

However, a guilt complex is a strong feeling of guilt, often present, whether or not you’re responsible for the wrongs or inadequacies. The sense of guilt the individual feels about normal activities is excessive and difficult to control despite the person’s efforts. Often, it is a source of distress to them and even those around them as it breeds self-doubt, shame, anxiety, and even tip the person to being dependent on substances in a bid to cope with the guilt and shame they feel. Sometimes, it could bring up past mistakes and manifests as unresolved guilt, further making it difficult for you to cope with your daily activities.

Understanding guilt and guilt complexes is the first step in the right direction if you or your loved one struggles and needs a reprieve from the burden of guilt and shame. There are five primary guilt complexes- a wrong action, guilt thoughts, false guilt, compassion guilt, and successor/survivor’s guilt- that we will discuss in detail and tips on how to overcome them.

Guilt Theories – What Are They?

Theory 1

According to some traditional psychologists, this theory considers that guilt is learned and rooted in our childhood behavior. It is related to anxiety and formed during the early stages of childhood development. Some psychologists believe that children learn guilt at a young age, and if they develop an unhealthy attitude towards guilt or grow up feeling a lot of guilt, it may become one of their strongest emotions.

Theory 2

On the other hand, modern-day psychologists believe that a guilt complex is rooted in cognitive activities. Guilt is a complex emotion experienced when someone does something wrong or even thinks they did something wrong.

Many guilt complex cases involve an individual experiencing guilt under the utterly false mindset that they caused harm or did something wrong. These negative emotions are often linked to the misinterpretation, overthinking, or overgeneralizing of consequences, as well as the individual’s inability to rationalize his or her thoughts logically. When a person feels guilty, it often comes with some physical manifestations such as

  • Headaches
  • Worry
  • Muscle pain
  • Nausea
  • Tearfulness
  • Insomnia
  • Fatigue

Understanding guilt does not just end with its theories and signs; we would also take a look at the five different situations that cause guilt, tips for dealing with a guilt complex, and how to cope with each case and seek outside help.

Signs Of Guilt: Five Situations that Cause Guilt

1. A Wrongful Action

The most common reason for experiencing guilt is when a person has done something wrong, such as physically and emotionally harming others. In this situation, the person feels guilt when the realization of the consequences of their wrongful actions comes to light or when a person oversteps his or her boundaries. It can also occur when someone goes against their morals, such as lying, cheating, or stealing. Sometimes a person can experience guilt when he or she breaks a promise to themselves. For example, you may promise yourself that you would quit drinking, using drugs, smoking, or overeating. When we fall back on our promises to ourselves and others, we inevitably experience guilt because we know we are in the wrong.

Getting Over Guilt From Wrongful Actions Tip 1.

It’s completely normal to experience guilty feelings in scenarios where you have hurt yourself or others. If you didn’t feel any guilt in these situations, then this could be an indication of a deeper and more complex psychological problem like Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Antisocial Personality Disorder. In order to overcome guilt in this instance, it is important to accept that whatever happened has happened, and there is nothing you can do to change it. The best way to deal with guilt is to accept it, apologize, and then prevent it from happening again if you can. This would avoid it morphing into a chronic guilt.

If your reason for guilt was caused by overstepping your boundaries, morals, or ethics- such as overusing alcohol or drugs, lying, or cheating-, then the easiest way to prevent these issues from happening again is to get rid of these habits. Some ways to do this are to seek professional help from a counselor or rehabilitation program or even seek support from a friend or family . Instead of feeling guilty all the time, which would not change anything instead make you sad.

2. Guilty Thoughts

This kind of guilt is quite common, as many of us think bad thoughts from time to time. However, sometimes negative thoughts can lead to guilt. The person often feels guilty for thinking these bad thoughts but does not act on it. Sometimes, even the thought of doing something that violates your ethical code, such as dishonesty, disloyal, or illegal, can cause guilt and shame for the individual. For example, if you lusted over someone besides your significant other, partner, spouse, or loved one, or thought of physically harming another person, then these thoughts can inevitably lead to feelings of guilt. Many psychologists argue that this is a difficult guilt complex to cope with because you didn’t follow through on the thoughts; there was no actual action.

Getting Over Guilty Thoughts Tip 2.

If you are feeling guilty for having wrong or immoral thoughts, then it is best to acknowledge these thoughts and how you feel about them. At this point, you can make a plan to change them, in order to prevent yourself from actually falling victim to your thoughts and committing the acts.

Most people will try to dismiss these thoughts, repress them, or “shove them under the rug.” However, this isn’t the healthiest way to deal with them. These thoughts can eventually lead you to actually going through with the action. You need to accept that you thought them and make a conscious effort to reduce the power of those thoughts, as well as their effects on you. Start to choose a positive thought to replace the negative thought. You can also try to engage in other activities like dancing, jogging or yoga to help clear your mind.

3. “False” Guilt

Emotional complexes can be just that-complex. Most people experience unhappiness due to their own irrational and incorrect thoughts about themselves, others, and even the world. Sometimes we experience guilt even when we think we did nothing wrong. In these cases, we might feel just as guilty as when we did something wrong. For example, like having a guilty pleasure, we might think of a rival coworker losing their job or secretly hoping that a friend’s or ex’s relationship fails. These thoughts often derive from our vengeful wishes, but we know deep down inside that these thoughts are illogical in some way. However, it is still difficult to negate these beliefs and thoughts.

In some severe cases, some individuals haven’t done anything wrong, but convince themselves that they did. Believe it or not, this can happen easily, especially when intense emotions and feelings are involved. As a result, the person tends to avoid doing things that would be beneficial to themselves as they feel they are not worthy enough to deserve it. It often becomes a form of chronic guilt that could interfere with the person’s chances of being successful.

Getting Over “False” Guilt Tip 3.

Guilt can be overpowering, so before you get down on yourself for doing something wrong, be sure to ask yourself if you truly did something wrong or if you only think you did. Distorting your memory of events can only make it seem like you were at fault. If you can self-reflect and ask yourself questions about the incident, you can then analyze and determine if there truly is anything to feel guilty about. If it becomes increasingly difficult for you to cope with it, you can seek professional help.

4. Compassion Guilt

There are situations when people feel like they can’t help another person enough. For example, consider a friend or family who has recently gotten divorced or who has passed away. You have devoted your time to be there for your friend or family as often as possible, but it’s time to return to your responsibilities, such as work or even caring for your own family. As a result, you begin to feel guilty because you can’t live up to the expectations that you set for yourself in supporting them. Psychologists refer to these situations that lead to guilt as compassion fatigue. These situations can lead to burnout for two reasons:

1) You are trying to care for another while also caring for yourself and your obligations.

2) The overwhelming feeling of guilt coupled with fatigue from caring for others can drain you.

Getting Over Compassion Guilt Tip 3.

It’s important to remember that you can make a choice to help someone and make sacrifices to help your friend or family . However, you need to realize that you have an obligation to care for yourself as well. Succumbing to guilt will only worsen your emotional state, which can keep you from being an effective helper and lead to burnout. In order to be there for someone else, you have to be there for yourself first. Remind yourself of this when you catch yourself feeling compassion guilt.

5. Successor/Survivor Guilt

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Have you ever felt guilty because you were doing well, and another person was not? This situation can cause one to feel guilt. Psychologists refer to these situations as survivor guilt. A common example is when a friend or family has lost another loved one or experienced a disaster; sometimes, people will begin to experience guilt because they are in a better position than the person who is grieving.

Survivor guilt can also occur within individuals who are more successful than their family or friends. For example, college students who earn a higher education often feel guilty because they achieved greater success than their family who did not attend college. They have the desire to succeed, but often experience some form of guilt because they have been granted more advanced opportunities than their families or friends.

Getting Over Successor/Survivor Guilt Tip 5.

Try telling yourself that others who love you are happy for you and your success. It’s important to keep in mind that purposely failing won’t cure someone’s illness or bring a person back, and it won’t make others love you more or less. Try to think of the knowledge and success that you gained and worked for as a tribute to your family and your roots. If you have accomplished something great, revel in your success- you earned it. Don’t let anyone guilt trip you into feeling sad over making the best out of yourself.

What is Guilt Complex Therapy and Other Treatment Options Available?

In addition to trying the “Getting over Guilt” tips above, cognitive therapy and treatment may also help. Peer reviewed studies show that this type of therapy teaches people how to rid themselves of the thought patterns that cause guilt-whether or not an act was committed. People who are constantly plagued by guilt are also taught to become more aware of their attitudes and feelings, such as learning to recognize when they did something wrong and how to avoid overthinking, overgeneralizing, or overcomplicating situations.

Remember, if you have the power to change your thoughts, you also have the power to change your emotions. Once you realize that you inaccurately see yourself as causing others to suffer, you can re-adjust your attitudes and thoughts accordingly to avoid experiencing guilty feelings.

BetterHelp Makes Therapy Options Easy

If you’re struggling with getting over guilt, talking with an online therapist can help you get control of your feelings and move forward the right way. Online therapy is a great option if you don’t have the time to go travel to see a therapist in person or even if you’re just not comfortable with doing that. BetterHelp is an online counseling service, which allows you to connect with a therapist via live chats, phone calls, messaging, and video calls from the comfort of your home. You can read a few reviews of our therapists below, from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

“Loretta has undoubtedly changed my life. In my late attempt to deal with trauma she has shown me the light at the end of the tunnel. Through various strategies and methods, she has provided me, I have become less paranoid, guilt-ridden, and anxious. I am so glad I decided to start using BetterHelp and was paired with Loretta.”

“Victoria is wonderful. She is accepting and genuine, anything you need to tell her will be met with nothing but positivity. If you are struggling with something that you have shame or guilt about, Victoria will help you and you will not feel judged in any way. She is a talented counselor with an open mind and a kind heart. You can trust her. Thank you For helping me Victoria. I am forever grateful.”


A guilt complex is an interesting and complex emotion. Guilt is a natural human response, but too much of it can be a sign of a guilt complex. In these cases, you can learn how to manage your guilt in healthy ways. Although guilt isn’t a devastating emotion by itself, it can lead to overcompensating, overgeneralizing, and overthinking various situations, which can increase stress levels, elevate emotions, and sacrifice a person’s happiness. Learn to manage guilt before it manages you. Take the first step today.

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