Why guilt occurs?

Asked by Anonymous

Guilt is an emotion that can be difficult to deal with for many of us because it feels so uncomfortable.  When we experience guilt, it can be somewhat confusing why it is there at times and can be helpful to question and reflect on why it is there.  Guilt can be purposeful in many ways, and it is important to recognize when guilt occurs to serve a purpose.  For example, if I steal something from a friend and then feel guilty about it, the guilt has a purpose: to learn why I stole it, come up with a plan not to steal again, and feel apologetic to my friend for stealing from them.  Without guilt, I would likely have difficulty maintaining friendships and relationships in my life because I would never actually learn from my mistakes. 

Sometimes guilt can pop up for people when it does not have a purpose.  People with low self-esteem and/or deep shame within them are likely to have this type of guilt occur. Due to their shame, they tend to think that they are inherently bad and thus will feel guilty in scenarios where they did nothing wrong.  This type of guilt has no purpose and can quickly become toxic. The toxicity of that kind of guilt can lead to serious mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, among others. 

For some people, guilt occurs because it has been ingrained in them. The messages we receive in our formative years of life typically stay with us throughout our lives.  When someone receives messages of being bad in their formative years of life, guilt will likely occur more often than someone that did not have that background.  For example, if someone grew up in a religion that focused on their mistakes, that will likely last throughout their lifetime and keep them focused on their mistakes, rather than some positives.  Guilt will occur for these individuals because it is how they were raised to think about themselves.  They could pick up on actual mistakes but will also likely struggle with thinking they are making mistakes when they are not.