Why Am I Feeling Guilty For No Reason? Exploring How Guilt Affects Your Mood

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated March 13, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Guilt is a natural emotion that serves to motivate positive behavioral changes and helps people learn from their mistakes. However, guilt should be a fleeting feeling that fades as you work through your emotions. For some people, guilt can persist, expanding to cast a shadow on multiple facets of their personality, causing them to take responsibility for things beyond their control or feel guilty when they have done nothing wrong. Read on to discover why you may feel guilty for no reason, how to manage misplaced guilt, and what therapy can do to help you manage your emotions in healthy and productive ways. 

Getty
Do you feel guilty all the time and don’t know why?

What is guilt?

Mental health experts typically define guilt as an aversive, self-conscious emotion, meaning that it is an uncomfortable feeling related to the perceived value of your actions according to your personal beliefs, values, and moral code. Nearly everyone will feel guilt occasionally, though psychologists have documented several personality disorders, such as antisocial personality disorder, where people lack a sense of guilt, morality, or respect for conventional ideas of “right and wrong.”

Guilt and shame may be used interchangeably, but they convey separate meanings for similar feelings. While both are emotions based on self-consciousness and self-reflection, there is a distinction between the two. Guilt typically is related to a perceived breach of personal morality or values, while shame is a reflection of your pursuit of idealism. Accordingly, guilt refers to the emotional reaction you experience when you do or think—accurately or not—you have done something “wrong” that betrays your individual values. In contrast, shame is an inward-focused feeling that reflects your feelings about yourself and your behavior when they conflict with your ideal self. 

Different types of guilt and when they occur

Guilt is a complex emotion that people experience throughout their lives, often driven by values or responses to certain situations. Because of this complexity, one may experience guilt for different reasons and can be defined by a distinct type of guilt. There are several types of guilty feelings you can experience in various situations. 

Natural (deontological) guilt 

This type of guilt is characterized by an emotional response to a perceived conflict in personal morals or values. When you understand you have done something you perceive as wrong, you may experience deontological guilt. For example, a person who follows a certain religion may feel guilt when they do something defined by their faith is wrong, such as premarital sex. 

Altruistic guilt

This happens when you feel guilt derived from an empathetic response when you realize you have harmed someone. You may experience altruistic guilt when you see the results of the harm, such as a coworker getting fired because you told your supervisor they made a huge mistake. 

Anticipatory guilt

You may feel this type of guilt when contemplating doing something that goes against your internal beliefs or values. Even if you don’t follow through with the action, you may feel guilt anyway. Thinking of lying to your friend to get out of doing something you do not want to do may cause you to feel anticipatory guilt. 

Existential guilt 

This type of guilt is based on a person’s internal sense of personal responsibility and drive for self-expression. When you feel you have not accomplished enough, lived up to expectations, or found your life's purpose, you may be experiencing existential guilt. 

Collective guilt (inequality) 

This type of guilt is derived from a person’s perception of justice and right from wrong. When you feel bad about imbalanced circumstances, like racial discrimination or sexism, and perceive you are not contributing to improving them, you may feel collective guilt. 

Non-related (misplaced)

A person with misplaced or non-related guilt will take responsibility for things beyond their control or when they have done nothing wrong. A common example of misplaced guilt is known as “survivor’s guilt”. This guilt occurs when a person who has survived a traumatic event when someone else loses their life feels intense remorse that they were left unharmed. 

Getty/Vadym Pastukh

Why do I feel guilty when I have done nothing wrong?

Many people live with a pervasive sense that they have done something wrong or are instinctively driven to accept blame when things go badly. You may notice that you are unable to shake the feeling that you do not do enough or are not "enough,” no matter how much you do to help the people in your life. Your “inner critic” may be the loudest and most controlling voice for your self-talk, but if your thoughts about yourself are only negative, it could help to examine the underlying causes of those feelings. 

Understanding the psychology of misplaced or undeserved guilt

Psychologists say humans are not born feeling guilty and, misplaced or not, guilty feelings can usually be traced to something you have experienced in the past. Through decades of research, mental health experts have identified several psychological reasons someone may be feeling guilty for no reason. 

Who experiences misplaced guilt?

  • Survivors of traumatic events often feel guilty for living when someone else dies. It usually affects survivors, even when they have no culpability in the event. Studies show that up to 90% of people surviving a traumatic event experience survivor’s guilt
  • Some people feel guilty for having more than someone else or for being the subject of their envy, even though they have not done anything wrong. 
  • Feeling responsible for circumstances beyond your control when neither your action nor your inaction could affect the situation can cause misplaced guilt. 
  • Persistent, unresolved guilt can expand to influence other areas of your life, making you feel an overwhelming sense of responsibility without cause. 
  • Many people feel guilty for taking time to care for themselves rather than using that effort to care for someone else, believing their needs are less important.
  • People living with a guilt complex can develop maladaptive patterns related to guilty feelings, making it challenging to recognize when they are actually responsible, while guilt no longer inspires positive behavioral changes. 

How constant guilt can affect your mood and behavior

Constantly working to function through the fog of persistent guilt can substantially impact your mood and behavior. 

Guilt can have a physical weight

Studies show that guilt can physically weigh you down, with many participants reporting a greater self-perceived physical weight when they feel guilty. 

Challenges enjoying life

When you feel guilty and are unable to identify its source, you may find it more challenging to enjoy your life. If you notice that you have trouble taking an interest in or enjoyment from things you previously enjoyed or a recent lack of interest in the world around you, talk to your doctor or mental healthcare provider about a symptom called anhedonia.

Symptoms of unresolved guilt

  • Decreased self-confidence and self-esteem
  • Believing you can’t recover from breaking your moral code
  • Feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Excessive worry over how others perceive your morality
  • Extreme sensitivity to criticism
  • Mental illness, such as depression or anxiety
  • Trouble setting and maintaining boundaries
  • Physical health problems like headache, stomachache, unidentified muscle pain or tension, and numerous other stress-related symptoms
  • Insomnia or other sleeping problems
  • Shifts in your eating patterns
  • Social isolation

What causes persistent guilty feelings?

Understanding what can cause persistent feelings of guilt can help you discover factors that may contribute to your lingering guilt. 

Mental health conditions

Various mental health conditions can affect your perception of the world, your place in it, and your responsibility for the circumstances you experience. Feeling guilty or being driven to act in a way that will cause guilt are both symptoms commonly associated with the following mental health conditions: 

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or survivor’s guilt
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Mood disorders, such as depressive disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Dysphoria (lingering feelings of dissatisfaction)
  • Alcohol and substance use disorders
  • Sexual disorders or addictions

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

Previous trauma and insecure attachment style

Many people with previous trauma in their history experience maladaptive guilt, often when they’ve done nothing wrong. During childhood, the care, love, and emotional support you receive from parents or caregivers shape your lifelong attachment style. Adverse childhood experiences, such as trauma from abuse or neglect, can lead to insecure attachment styles, affecting how you relate to others and view yourself. 

Individual values, morals, and beliefs

When you are raised with strongly emphasized guidelines for “right and wrong,” religious beliefs, or extreme family values, you may feel guilty for breaking away from those restrictions and living as you choose. 

Tips for coping with persistent unearned guilt

  • You might take a step back from the emotional aspect of the situation and evaluate your role in the circumstances.
  • Consider reaching out to your friends and family for emotional support.
  • You may look into support groups for people experiencing similar struggles.
  • You may consider psychotherapy treatments, which have been clinically proven to help people work through guilty feelings and prioritize their own needs.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Do you feel guilty all the time and don’t know why?

How online therapy can help you let go of unresolvable guilt

Feeling guilty for no reason can affect your mood and behavior in various ways, influencing your inner critic to echo a negative voice that emphasizes shame and guilt. Those feelings of guilt, shame, or embarrassment may make it difficult to see a therapist in person. Working with a licensed therapist online through a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp means you can meet with a therapist from the comfort of your own home and communicate with them through video calls, phone calls, or in-app messages, putting some distance between you and the person you are talking to.

Studies show that online and in-person Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) treatments offer similar outcomes for patients, with the added benefits of convenience and comfort. CBT is a standard psychological treatment to help people overcome misplaced guilt to help them let go of feelings of remorse when they have done nothing wrong. CBT enables you to explore the connection between your thoughts and feelings, allowing you to identify negative or maladaptive patterns in thoughts and behaviors so you can reshape them into healthier habits.

Takeaway

Many people feel guilty with no clear reason or when they have done nothing wrong. The information presented in this article offers insight into why you may feel guilty, how you can understand and overcome those feelings, and the skills you can learn in online therapy to examine and manage emotional reactions.
Release the weight of guilt
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started