Guilt | Symptoms & Treatment Options — Zencare


Guilt is one of the heaviest emotions that we can have. It taps into our sense of morality, as we make a judgment of what’s “right” and what’s “wrong.” It also taps into our human drive for social connection, as we often feel guilty in response to situations involving other people.

What is guilt?

Guilt is an emotion that happens when someone feels like they’ve done something wrong. Whether they’ve done something objectively wrong or not, guilt can become an intense emotion.

In some situations, guilt is a healthy emotional reaction. When there is a clear line between “right” and “wrong,” guilt dissuades someone from engaging in the “wrong” behavior. For example, a person might decide not to steal their neighbor’s car because they recognize that their neighbor would become upset or even debilitated if their car was stolen. Guilt is an act of social control and is used both appropriately and inappropriately.

However, there are many situations where heavy guilt is not warranted. When you feel guilty for an excessive amount of time or this guilt becomes unhealthy for you, it may be time to speak with a therapist.

Types of guilt

Guilt comes in many different types. Being such a strong emotion, there are many situations in which people feel overwhelmingly and at times unnecessarily guilty. Some of these situations include:

  • When you survive a terrible situation and others did not, often known as “survivor’s guilt”
  • When you become upset about something and don’t think you should be
  • When you hurt someone’s feeling by being honest or advocating for yourself
  • When you think about how you parent
  • When you aren’t able to be there for a friend, even if you needed to prioritize your own mental health
  • When you accidentally hurt someone else, either physically or verbally
  • When your work on a project unintentionally negatively impacted a colleague

It’s possible to feel guilty for a wide variety of reasons. Sometimes, this feeling will cease after the passage of time or when viewed in a larger context. Other times, it can become all-consuming and negatively impact your health.

Symptoms of guilt

Feeling guilty is a complex emotion that results in many other feelings. People who feel guilty may experience anxiety, stress, sadness, feelings of worthlessness, low self-esteem, regret, loneliness, or critical self-talk. It’s common for negative self-judgments to occur when guilt is on the line – thoughts like, “I’m so stupid for doing that!” or “I can’t believe I just did that, I mess everything up!” These are called cognitive distortions and can lead to mental health conditions like depression.

When someone feels guilty, they may change their behavior to compensate for this emotion. If they are afraid that they hurt someone, they might go out of their way to be helpful for others. Others might avoid situations or places that remind them of their guilt, avoiding certain streets or settings. The stress of guilt can also impact someone on a physical level, leading to aches, sweating, or an elevated heart rate.

Therapy for guilt

Sometimes, guilt is explicitly known to the person experiencing it. On the other hand, you might not realize that you’re feeling guilty until you process through a situation and find out that the reason you’re distressed is because of guilt. A trained therapist can help you untangle your emotional response and identify the reasons behind your guilt. Therapists who treat guilt will offer objective perspectives for you to consider. They’ll also teach you how to combat harsh self-talk and judgment.

The goal of therapy for guilt is to build self-compassion and to forgive yourself. If the guilt impacts your relationships with others, therapy will give you tools to make amends.