One of the heaviest emotions that we can have is guilt. 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 actions and events involving other people and a perceived sense of responsibility.

What is guilt?

Guilt is an emotion that happens when someone feels like they’ve done something wrong and lay blame on themselves. Whether they’ve done something objectively wrong or not, guilt can become an intense feeling of shame.

In some situations, guilt is a healthy emotional reaction. When there is a clear line between “right” and “wrong,” guilt dissuades one 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, not to mention the criminality of the offense. Guilt is an act of social control and is used both appropriately and inappropriately.

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

Types of guilt

Being such a strong sensation, guilt comes in many diverse types. 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 the way you parent, and have feelings of inadequacy
  • When you aren’t able to be there for a friend, even if you needed to prioritize the state of your own mental health
  • When you make a mistake or accidentally hurt someone else, either physically or with your words
  • When your work on a project unintentionally negatively impacted a colleague

It’s possible to have feelings of guilt for a wide variety of reasons. Sometimes, these feelings will cease after the passage of time or when viewed in a larger context of circumstances. Other times, it can become an all-consuming sense of shame and negatively impact your health.

Symptoms of guilt

Feelings of guilt are complex emotions that result in many other feelings. People who have a guilt complex may experience another type of mental health condition including:

It’s common for shame and negative self-judgments to occur when you experience guilt – thoughts like, “I’m so stupid for doing that!” or “I can’t believe I just did that, I mess everything up!” These feelings of remorse 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. If they are afraid that they hurt another person, they might go out of their way to be helpful for others. Others might avoid situations or places that remind them of their guilt or distress, avoiding certain streets or settings. The stress of shame and guilt can also impact the life of an individual on a physical level. The self-punishment associated with the pain and symptoms of guilt may lead 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, a person might not realize that they're feeling guilty until they process through a situation and find out that the reason they're distressed is because of guilt. A trained therapist can help untangle this emotional response and identify the reasons behind a guilt complex. Therapists who treat guilt will offer objective perspectives for your consideration. They also teach people how to combat harsh self-talk and judgment in their lives.

The goal of therapy for guilt is to build self-compassion and forgiveness. If the guilt affects your relationships with others, therapy will give you tools to make amends and take different actions in the future.