Potential Causes Of Feeling Wracked With Guilt

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated May 26, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines guilt as “a self-conscious emotion characterized by a painful appraisal of having done (or thought) something that is wrong and often by a readiness to take action designed to undo or mitigate this wrong.” While some guilt can be helpful and allow us to make better decisions, misplaced or uncontrollable guilt can have detrimental effects on both physical and mental health. If you find yourself often racked with guilt or overwhelmed by a deep sense of guilt, understanding where the feeling comes from and learning to manage it can help you move forward in a healthy way.

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Having trouble coping with guilt?

Appropriate guilt vs. a guilt complex

An “appropriate” sense of guilt is generally one that serves a positive purpose and then dissipates. For example, feeling guilt for having wronged someone can be helpful in motivating you to apologize and/or make it right. It can also help you avoid similar harmful behaviors in the future. In contrast, a guilt complex, or “irrational guilt,” is when you feel a persistent sense of guilt over time—and one that’s not always tied to a specific wrong. It could also manifest as a constant, nerve racking fear of doing something wrong. Research on this topic describes individuals who tend to feel this way as “guilt-prone,” noting that those who were socialized and/or identify as women tend to be more guilt-prone. 

It’s also worth nothing that excessive guilt—as well as the total absence of guilt or remorse—may be linked to certain mental health conditions. For instance, excessive guilt could drive compulsions in someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Feeling racked with guilt could also contribute to symptoms of depression, as constantly perceiving that you’re doing things wrong or not doing enough can take a toll on one’s self-worth, life outlook, and overall mental health. Anxiety disorders could also result from or contribute to a guilt complex. In contrast, a lack of a sense of guilt could be indicative of a personality disorder, such as antisocial personality disorder.

Possible causes of guilt

If you’re feeling wracked with guilt, understanding the root cause can be helpful in working toward resolving this emotion.

When it comes to appropriate guilt, the cause is usually action or inaction that goes against an individual’s own moral code or the moral code of the broader culture or society they live in. This type of guilt may arise naturally within an individual, or it may be imposed on them by others. For example, someone who gossips or speaks negatively about a friend behind their back may rack themselves with guilt after doing so, or after being reprimanded by someone else in their social circle.

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Causes of a guilt complex can vary, but they often relate to a warped sense of responsibility or impossibly high standards imposed on someone during childhood or in a relationship. For instance, some people who grew up in strict religious traditions that left little room for mistakes and promised frightening punishments for wrongdoing could develop a guilt complex. Those who were raised by parents or caregivers who held them to perfectionist standards or were in a relationship with such a person as an adult may also experience a guilt complex as a result of their human inability to behave perfectly all the time. Someone who experiences childhood trauma or a difficult upbringing could also feel guilt related to those events, even though they weren’t responsible for them. Similarly, a person who survived a fatal event while others did not could lead to the experience and pain of survivor’s guilt.

What to do when you’re wracked with guilt

Note: When talking about feeling “wracked with guilt”, the verb wrack and the verb rack can be used interchangeably in this context. While the verb rack is more common, people use both rack and wrack (and their respective verb forms) when they feel “wracked with guilt.” When used as a noun, wrack means wrecked ship. However, in this context, both rack and wrack mean to cause pain.

Taking time to examine where from where your guilt originated and whether it’s appropriate or irrational can help you decide what to do next. If you caused someone harm through your action or inaction that a reasonable person would agree was your responsibility, you might take steps to remedy the situation. This could include apologizing and otherwise making amends. 

If you’re experiencing “irrational” guilt as part of a guilt complex and/or mental health condition, there are a few strategies you can try to manage it so it doesn’t interfere with your life or continue to cause distress. Some of these include the following.

Identify the source

If a specific person seems to be constantly encouraging you to feel guilty when you shouldn’t, you might consider spending less time around them and seeing if your feelings improve. The same can be said for social media; unfollowing accounts that lead to feeling guilty or taking down your account altogether if it’s contributing to irrational guilty feelings could help. If you can trace your guilt complex back to a traumatic event or a difficult upbringing, this may be something to explore through journaling and/or therapy.

Envision someone you love in your circumstance

Imagine a friend or family member came to you to confess that they were feeling guilty for the same reason you currently are, and then envision what you’d say to them. If you’d comfort them and assure them that it’s not their fault or that it’s not reasonable to feel guilty for this particular situation, you might try and apply that perspective to yourself. This exercise is one characterized by self-compassion, which  research suggests can help improve well-being by helping you feel “cared for, connected, and emotionally calm.”

Journal about it

Sometimes, the stories we tell ourselves in our own heads can make us feel badly—until they see the light of day. In other words, journaling or speaking out loud about the situation that produces irrational guilt in you may help you see it for what it truly is and allow you to let go of the guilt you feel. Putting your feelings and the thoughts in your brain into words and contextualizing the situation verbally or in writing can make it easier to see the truth.

Speak with a therapist

Speaking with a therapist is another potentially helpful way to manage guilt, regardless of the source. If you’re experiencing appropriate guilt for an action you took that you cannot change, a therapist can help you cope. If you have a guilt complex and/or experience guilt as a result of a mental health condition, a therapist can allow you a safe space to express your emotions, learn healthy coping techniques, and address any other symptoms. Either way, having their nonjudgmental, unbiased listening and support can be helpful for someone who is feeling wracked with guilt for any reason. 

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Having trouble coping with guilt?

There are various reasons why a person may not feel comfortable seeking in-person therapy, such as embarrassment or nervousness, while others aren’t able to locate providers in their area. In cases like these, where you find therapy to be nerve-wracking or inaccessible, online therapy can provide a viable alternative. With a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist with whom you can connect via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging from the comfort of home. Research suggests that there’s “no difference in effectiveness” between online and in-person therapy, so you can generally choose the option that feels best for you. See below for client reviews of BetterHelp counselors.

Counselor reviews

“In the last 7 months or so, Lois has really helped me in reshaping my perspectives on my relationships and my involvement in them. I have seen a great deal of personal growth occur through her attention and guidance. I have been able to understand where my struggles had come from and deal with difficult ideas like blame and guilt. I'm very grateful for her time and attention and I'm confident that my personal relationships will be stronger and healthier as a result of working with Lois.”

“Dr. Molina helped me understand and validate my traumas in a way that was respectful and compassionate. She helped me find the tools to deal with my anxious and depressive episodes and realize that I am not broken. I now have a more concrete understanding of where my triggers stem from and what I can do about them. I feel confident in my ability to advocate for myself and my needs without feeling guilty. I am extremely thankful.”

Takeaway

Guilt can be a constructive emotion when it’s warranted, helping us to rectify wrongs and make better choices in the future. However, constantly feeling wracked with guilt can be a sign of a guilt complex and/or a mental health condition and can negatively impact daily functioning and well-being. Journaling, reframing the situation, practicing self-compassion, and speaking with a therapist can all be helpful in this case.
Release the weight of guilt
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