Guilt ©

The dictionary describes guilt as a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined. Guilt is an unpleasant feeling of remorse or sadness regarding a past action. It can occur when a person does something against their moral code, believes they have done something against their moral code, or feels as if they have otherwise wronged someone. It is a cognitive or an emotional experience that occurs when a person believes or realizes, accurately or not, that they have compromised their own standards of conduct or have violated a universal moral standard and bears significant responsibility for that violation. In cognitive theory, the thoughts cause the emotions. People who have strong feelings of guilt may experience pain as a result and may also find that their guilt affects their daily actions, attitude, relationships, and outlook on life. It is appropriate to feel guilty when you’ve done something wrong.


Guilt plays a major role in our moral behaviour and can encourage us to follow ethical codes and social norms, as feelings of guilt that result from a wrongdoing can lead us to experience greater empathy for others and to take responsibility for and make amends for our actions. It is like a signal that keeps going off in your head until you take appropriate action. Studies have shown that creativity, productivity, concentration and efficiency are all significantly lower when you're feeling actively guilty. 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 can be an emotional prison where no matter what we do, we end up feeling bad.


Guilt is distinct from, but similar to, shame. Guilt is associated with a specific real or perceived transgression and shame is a feeling about oneself. People who feel guilty think, “I did something bad,” and people who feel ashamed think, “I am bad”. Depression and anxiety are both chronic psychological issues a person can develop when experiencing difficulties in attempting to move past guilt. Guilt is an important emotion that compels us to make ethical decisions, and sometimes feelings of guilt mean that we have not made amends.


Coping with Guilt

Despite all our efforts, things will happen that will cause us to feel guilty.  Some of these guilt feelings may be realistic, and others may not.   Learning to deal effectively with guilt and learning how you can eliminate unnecessary guilt will improve your life. At times, it may not be possible to resolve issues of guilt with someone who has been harmed by an action. For example, when a parent dies before a son/daughter can apologise for a past action. In other situations, our guilt might be disproportionate to our crime, or continue long after we have made amends. A person may attempt to rationalise their behaviour that caused the guilt or attempt to brush it off. These actions will only provide a temporary relief from guilt. Discussing an issue with someone trusted, apologising and taking full responsibility for our actions, or trying to do good in the world can all help ease guilt.


Our problems occur when we ruminate over guilt. Something that happened in the past cannot be changed. It is best to accept what has happened, to apologise to the person or persons you’ve harmed, and to figure out how to avoid committing the same offence in the future. We all need to learn how to deal with and control guilt so that it does not control us. If you find yourself frequently feeling guilty, or perhaps that guilt is getting in the way of your living effectively, you may need professional help.


Therapy

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. A therapist can help you by observing and analysing your behaviour and values from an impartial perspective.  A therapist will be aware of many effective strategies to help you deal with guilt.  All mentally healthy people will experience guilt during their life.  However, being able to put our guilt feelings and indeed behaviours into proper perspective, and developing a plain to alleviate guilt in a healthy way, is a most important skill to develop.

 

Gene Barry Psychotherapist

© Gene Barry