Guilt is an extremely uncomfortable feeling where a person has regret and shame over something. Many times people feel guilty when they do something that goes against their morality, or guilt comes from realizing you've harmed someone. Guilt can be so overwhelming that it impacts interpersonal relationships and daily life. Guilt is a feeling that all human beings feel for different reasons, but no matter the source, it’s painful. Here you will find articles about how guilt manifests in human behavior. Read about what causes guilt 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.
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Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Guilt is a strong emotion that you might feel when you believe you’ve caused harm or pain to another person, whether physically or emotionally. While guilt can be positive in that it can teach people how to make wiser choices in the future, it can also be unhealthy when it persists or is unreasonable for the situation at hand. By learning the difference between constructive guilt and maladaptive guilt, you may be able to maintain a healthier mindset after making a mistake. Here, we’ll explore the various facets of guilt to promote a greater understanding of this common emotion.
Reasons For Guilt
There are many reasons you might be feeling guilty. Perhaps you’re having conflict with a close friend or significant other and know the issue needs resolving. You might be avoiding discussing it because you feel bad about whatever went wrong. Avoidance of conflict can be a common cause of guilt.
You may be experiencing guilt because of expectations you haven’t lived up to. Maybe your parents want you to be a doctor, or you always had dreams of being a famous artist. In any case, not accomplishing your goals or aspirations can lead you to develop guilty feelings.
Unresolved guilt can lead to other symptoms like anxiety or depression. Therefore, if you’re feeling guilty, it can be important to address the underlying issue and work through your emotions. By dealing with the issue at hand directly, you can put the past behind you and start looking ahead.
If you’ve ever been excessively hard on yourself, then you may already be familiar with the feeling of self-imposed guilt. While it can be important to hold yourself to high standards and live according to your values, it can be equally crucial to remember that everyone makes mistakes and choices that they later regret. Rather than beating yourself up over your shortcomings, it can be beneficial to forgive yourself and practice self-compassion. Then, you can commit to doing better in the future by making healthier, wiser decisions.
Survivor’s guilt refers to a mental health condition that an individual may develop after surviving a traumatic event that resulted in loss of life. People with this condition might feel immense guilt over still being alive, even believing that they should have lost their lives as the other person or people did. Survivors of natural disasters or attempted murders may have survivor’s guilt, among other situations. People who have a loved one who died by suicide can also experience survivor's guilt. In the DSM-5, survivor’s guilt is listed as a symptom of PTSD. Even if someone doesn’t have survivor’s guilt, they may still feel guilty about things that aren’t their fault.
Guilt trips are situations in which one person tries to get another individual to do what they want by making them feel guilty. People may use guilt-tripping with their friends, family members, or romantic partners, among others. Guilt trips can be a form of manipulation since they attempt to control another person’s emotions and actions. When people fall for a guilt trip, they may wind up feeling resentful for saying yes to the other person’s request. Many people end up saying yes only to please the other person, not because they want to do what’s being asked of them.
It can be important to use caution when utilizing this tactic, as you may end up alienating the other person completely. In general, guilt trips aren’t considered a healthy form of behavior, and it might be more productive to outright ask for what you want without having to use manipulation. Respecting the other person’s boundaries and wishes can help ensure that you stay on positive terms with them without crossing any lines.
“Should” And Guilt
You might feel guilt when you subconsciously use a particular word: “should.” When you tell yourself that you “should” be doing something, it can be self-shaming and make you feel guilty about what you’re not doing in life. You might think something like, “I should be helping them,” or “I should be pursuing that degree, not this one.” When you start to believe these phrases, you may feel responsible for things or people that are not your responsibility.
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 probably nothing else you “should” be doing. It’s likely you already have a lot on your plate; unnecessary guilt doesn’t have to be another burden to carry.
Online Therapy For Guilt
Although guilt can be a natural emotion, if it persists over an extended period and begins to affect your mental health or daily functioning, it could be time to consider participating in therapy. Discussing sensitive, guilt-inducing matters with someone new can be challenging, particularly when meeting face-to-face. Connecting with a therapist through a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp may help you feel more comfortable when sharing your feelings. With online therapy, you can use phone calls, video chats, or in-app messaging to get the support and guidance you need to work through guilt and begin to live your life fully again.
The Efficacy Of Online Therapy For Guilt
Research has demonstrated the efficacy of online therapy, finding that it is just as effective as traditional, face-to-face interventions. Therapy can be useful for those experiencing a variety of concerns, such as guilt. In one study, researchers assessed the effectiveness of trauma-informed guilt reduction therapy and found that it was “efficacious in reducing guilt that is common to moral injury as well as PTSD and depression symptoms among combat veterans.” Those struggling with guilt could benefit from connecting with a therapist online for further help and guidance.
Guilt is a normal human emotion that may present itself when we feel like we’ve done something wrong or harmed another person. However, when guilt is left to fester and remains unaddressed, it may lead to mental health concerns like anxiety or depression. Finding the appropriate support and guidance can be crucial when you’re struggling with guilty feelings.
In this section, you can learn more about different strategies to cope with guilt or choose to sign up with BetterHelp and meet individually with an online therapist. You may think that you deserve to feel bad about yourself but remember that no one is perfect, and we are all prone to making mistakes. Whenever you feel ready, personalized support is just a click of a button away.