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

By Sarah Fader

Updated June 12, 2019

Reviewer Amanda Andrews

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Many different reasons can cause guilt. Each person feels and experiences guilt differently. According to psychologists-even dating back to Freud- five different situations cause guilt.

Read on to learn more about a guilt complex, the five different types, and some common signs to help you determine if you have one.

What is a Guilt Complex?

Guilt is a complex emotion. It is often experienced when one does something wrong-either by accident or intent. It seems pretty simple, but guilt goes a bit deeper and gets more complex than that. Guilt is also experienced when one thinks they have done something wrong but didn't. However, guilt is the source of many negative feelings, which can include sadness, anxiety, anger, loneliness and even grief.

Guilt Complex Theories

According to some traditional psychologists, guilt is learned and is rooted in our behavior from childhood. It is related to anxiety, formed during early stages of childhood development. Some psychologists believe that children learn guilt a young age and eventually grow into adults who translate guilt as a constant fear of showing true emotions.

On the other hand, modern-day psychologists believe that a guilt complex is rooted in cognitive activities. Guilt is a complex emotion that is experienced when someone does something wrong or when someone even thinks they did something wrong. The most common examples are causing harm to themselves or someone else or even going against their values.

In fact, many cases of a guilt complex involve an individual experiencing guilt under the completely false mindset that they caused harm or did something wrong. These negative emotions are often linked to the misinterpretation, overthinking or overgeneralizing consequences as well as the individual's inability to logically rationalize his or her thoughts and conclusions.

Now that you understand more about what a guilt complex is and what it involves let's take a look at the five different situations that cause guilt, the five signs of a guilt complex, and how to cope with each situation.

Guilt Complex: 5 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, guilt arises when the realization of the consequences of a person's wrongful actions comes to light or when a person oversteps his or her boundaries and against their morals, such as lying, cheating or stealing.

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Sometimes a person can experience guilt when he or she breaks a promise to him or herself. 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 Tip #1. It's completely normal to experience guilt in these scenarios-whether you harm yourself or someone else. If you didn't feel any guilt in these scenarios, then this could be an indication of a deeper and more complex psychological problem.

In over to overcome guilt in this situation, it's 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 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 is to seek professional help from a counselor or rehabilitation program or even seek support from a friend or family member.

2: Guilty Thoughts. Everyone thinks bad thoughts from time to time. However, sometimes bad or impure thoughts can cause guilt. These situations can cause guilt when an individual only thinks of doing something wrong but doesn't see it through. Sometimes even the thought of doing something that violates your ethical code, such as something dishonest, disloyal or illegal can cause guilt.

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For example, if you lusted over a person-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.

Getting Over Guilt Tip #2. If you are feeling guilty for having wrong or immoral thoughts, then it is best to accept these thoughts are a part of the present. Then, make a plan to change them to prevent yourself from actually falling victim to your thoughts and committing such act(s).

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 these thoughts. These thoughts can eventually lead you actually to commit them. The best way to deal with them is to accept that you through them and then make a conscious effort to reduce the power of those thoughts as well as the effects on you.

"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 something wrong. In these cases, we might feel just as guilty as if we did something wrong. For example, we might think of a rival coworker losing his or her job, or secretly hope 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.

Getting Over 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 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.

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Compassion Guilt. There are situations when people feel like they can't help another person enough. For example, consider a friend or family member 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) because of trying to care for another while also caring for yourself and your obligations, and 2) the overwhelming guilt. The overwhelming feeling of guilt coupled with fatigue leads to compassion fatigue.

Getting Over Guilt Tip #4. It's important to remember that you can make a choice to help someone, and make sacrifices to help your friend or family member. However, you must be prepared to experience some level of guilt if you don't separate yourself from helping another. Remember, succumbing to guilt will only worsen your emotional state, which can keep you from being an effective helper.

Successor Survivor Guilt. 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 member 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.

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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 more success than their family members 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 Guilt Tip #5. One way to rid yourself of guilt is to tell yourself that others who love you are happy for you and your success. It's important to keep in mind 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 is a tribute to your family and your roots.

Guilt Complex Therapy and Treatment

In addition to trying the "Getting Over Guilt" tips above, cognitive therapy and treatment may also help. This type of therapy teaches people how to rid themselves of the thoughts 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, such as learning to recognize when they did something wrong, and how to avoid overthinking and 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 guilt.

A guilt complex is an interesting and complex emotion. Even if you can't totally live a life without any guilt, you can learn how to manage your guilt. 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.

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