Here you will find articles about how guilt manifests in human behavior. Read about what causes guilt in different people and find ways to cope best when you find yourself feeling guilty. You don’t have to suffer from guilty feelings; there are ways to deal with those emotions.
Medically Reviewed By: Aaron Horn, LMFT, MA
What is Guilt?
Guilt is a real emotion. It’s an internal state of being where you feel like you caused another person harm or pain, whether that’s physical or emotional distress. Some people believe that guilt is a good way to get someone to do something for them, but it’s not healthy to try to accomplish your goals by making the other person feel bad about their actions or themselves. Guilt isn’t a good way to motivate someone to do something for you. Guilt isn’t a positive feeling, but rather a negative emotional state. It is grouped with loneliness, pain or grief.
Guilt Can Be Self-Punishing
When you feel guilty, you’re probably blaming yourself for the action you took to hurt another person. It’s a natural feeling to want to have an explanation for why the individual you love is suffering. You want to understand it, and guilt allows you to place the blame on yourself. You have a reason for your feelings, and you’re able to point to yourself as the cause. You punish yourself, so you can explain what’s happening. It’s an unhealthy coping mechanism, but it happens to a lot of people.
You May Feel Guilty For Things That Aren't Your Fault
There is a term called “survivor’s guilt.” It is used to describe the feeling someone gets when they survive a traumatic event while other people didn’t. They feel like they have done something wrong. Survivors of sexual assault, natural disasters or attempted murder may have survivor’s guilt. People who have a loved one who died by suicide can experience the condition. Survivor’s guilt is associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the DSM. The condition is an example of how people take responsibility for things that aren’t their fault.
Guilt Can Make You Resentful
People who give guilt trips engage in this behavior, so they can manipulate or attempt to control others. When they try to guilt the other person, it can cause them to feel resentful. The “guilt tripper” thought they were taking control over the person or situation, but in reality, they’ve caused more harm than good. The object of their manipulative behavior is frustrated, resentful and turned off. By giving a guilt trip, you run the risk of alienating the other person. You might say something like “You ruined everything. I don’t want to talk to you.” The other person feels bad, but then after processing those feelings, they don’t want to talk to you, because they don’t appreciate how you treated them. Guilt can be extremely detrimental to relationships, and it’s best to avoid using it as a tactic to try to get what you want from another person.
When Problems are Unresolved, You Feel Guilty
You might feel guilty when you’re avoiding conflict. You know something is wrong, and you need to talk to the other person, but you don’t want to deal with the issue. Avoidance can cause guilt. You may not realize that you’re avoiding conflict, but once you do it’s essential to face the problem and talk to the person. Your guilty feelings will decrease, and you’ll feel much better. Having unresolved issues will continue to nag at you, and you’ll likely experience guilt, anxiety, and uneasiness. It’s best to deal with the problem at hand and stop avoiding it.
How “Should” Isn't Helpful
You might feel guilty by using a particular word: “should.” When you tell yourself you should do something, it’s self-shaming. The word “should” makes a person feel bad about what they’re not doing. It inevitably causes the individual to feel guilty when they don’t need to feel that way. They may feel responsible for things they don’t need to fix. The person might believe they need to help people that they’re not responsible for, and they find themselves feeling guilty. When you find yourself starting to use the word “should,” remember that you’re the master of your destiny and you have the choice as to what you can do in your life. Ask yourself “am I doing all that I can?” If the answer is yes, then there’s nothing else you “should” be doing. You don’t have to cause yourself guilt unnecessarily.
Online counseling is a great place to explore why you’re experiencing guilt. People who struggle with overwhelming levels of guilt might be at a loss as to what to do with them. That’s where a licensed online counselor can help! Speak to an online therapist here at BetterHelp about strategies as to how to deal with your guilty feelings. You are not alone, and many people deal with shame and guilt. You can get through these feelings in therapy. Search through our network of skilled online therapists and find the right one for you.