Guilt is an unpleasant feeling of remorse or sadness regarding a past action. It can occur when a person does something against his/her moral code, believes he/she has done something against his/her moral code, or feels as if he/she has otherwise wronged someone. People who have strong feelings of guilt may experience pain as a result and may also find that their guilt affects their attitude, relationships, daily actions, and outlook on life. Individuals having difficulty overcoming guilt on their own may wish to seek the help of a mental health professional to cope with their guilty feelings.
Guilt plays a major role in moral behavior and can encourage people to follow ethical codes and social norms, as feelings of guilt that result from a wrongdoing can lead one to experience greater empathy for others and take responsibility for and make amends for their actions. Because feelings of guilt can be highly unpleasant, long-lasting guilt may lead to anxiety, sadness, depression, or self-loathing. Some researchers believe that guilt is unique to humans.
Guilt is distinct from, but similar to, shame. While guilt is associated with a specific real or perceived transgression, shame is a feeling about oneself. Guilty people think, “I did something bad,” while people think, “I am bad” when they feel ashamed. This difference can be seen in the distinction of shame and guilt cultures. Shame cultures, such as ancient Greece and Japan, place a greater emphasis on what others think of an individual: When a person transgresses, they lose respect, they lose face, they are embarrassed. The disgrace they face is their punishment. However, in guilt cultures, of which the United States is one, a person might do something wrong, but apologizing and making amends can erase the blot on one's character. Judaism and Christianity, religions in which guilt traditionally plays a significant part, emphasize the role of the conscience in urging an individual to atone for their wrongdoing and appease their guilt, but the conscience is not particular to religion.
Similarly, guilt can be affected by cultural norms, and some cultures encourage more guilt than others. A person in one culture may also feel guilty about a behavior that a person in another culture would not even notice. For example, some cultures, notably those that practice some forms of Christianity, discourage sex before marriage, and unmarried individuals who engage in sexual intercourse before marriage may be taught that they should feel guilty for doing so. In other cultures, however, having sex before marriage is not stigmatized and is generally not an act one feels guilt over. Thus, guilt must be taught, to some extent.
There are many possible situations in which a person may feel guilty, and what makes one person feel guilty may not make another person experience guilt. Examples of situations that a person may feel guilty over include:
- A person who files for a divorce may feel guilty because it conflicts with his/her value of commitment.
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- A child who is a victim of abuse may have feelings of guilt over the abuse because he/she believes he/she did something wrong and was therefore responsible for the abuse.
- A parent who is estranged from his/her child may experience feelings of guilt, believing he/she did not try hard enough to maintain bonds with the child.
- An senior person who looks back on his/her life may feel guilty for certain things he/she did not accomplish or try, such as feeling guilty for not being a supportive parent.
Some people experience difficulty when attempting to move past guilt, and this difficulty can lead to the development of chronic psychological issues including depression and anxiety. Guilt and shame can be major motivating factors in obsessive and compulsive behaviors, and severe guilt can also make it difficult for an individual to sustain a relationship. Psychotherapy can help an individual resolve unwanted emotions, and therapy may be especially helpful in dealing with guilt because treatment often enables people to live with negative emotions and challenge self-defeating thoughts.
Sometimes it is not possible to resolve issues of guilt with the party who was harmed by an action---such as when a parent dies before a child can apologize for a past action. In other cases, the guilt might be disproportionate to the crime or continue long after a person has made amends. For example, a parent might spend years feeling guilty for yelling at his or her child once. In these situations, psychotherapy may be helpful in dealing with guilt. Therapists might work on helping clients process their emotions and reframe their thoughts about an incident. A therapist may even work with a family to resolve issues of guilt and anger that affect the entire family.
Guilt is also an important emotion that compels people to make ethical decisions, and sometimes feelings of guilt mean that a person has not yet made amends. A person might attempt to rationalize the behavior that caused the guilt or brush it off, but these actions will generally only provide a temporary relief from guilt. Discussing an issue with someone trusted, apologizing and taking responsibility for one's actions, or trying to do good in the world can all help ease guilt.
Overcoming long-standing guilt: Charles, 23, meets with a counselor in an attempt to deal with feelings of guilt from an incident that took place in his teenage years. He and a group of his friends had repeatedly harassed two homeless men they often saw at a park in their neighborhood: jeering at them, throwing their belongings into garbage cans, and tossing garbage at them. Charles' feelings of guilt have worsened since he could not find the two men upon returning to his hometown after college, though he had planned to apologize to them and make amends. After a conversation with his counselor, Charles decides to spend some time each week volunteering at a shelter or soup kitchen. When he does so, although he still feels guilt over the way he behaved in the past, his guilt is somewhat assuaged by the knowledge that he is helping others.
- Lancer, D. (2014, June 7). 18 Tips to Overcome Guilt and Forgive Yourself. Retrieved from http://www.whatiscodependency.com/ho-to-overcome-guilt-and-forgive-yourself.
- Prinz, J. J. (2007). The emotional construction of morals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Sacks, J. (2014, November 4). The Difference Between Shame and Guilt Cultures. Retrieved from http://www.rabbisacks.org/difference-shame-guilt-cultures-thought-day.
- Tangney, J. P., & Dearing, R. L. (2002). Shame and guilt. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Last updated: 07-03-2015
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