What May Hide Behind the Feeling of Guilt?

Guilt is probably one of the most unpleasant feelings. However, not only is this a natural emotion, but also a quite helpful one. If we never felt guilty, we would be unable to recognize our wrongdoings and mistakes. If you imagine a person who never feels guilty, you likely won’t like to be friends with them.

There is an inner critic inside of all of us. It reflects on our actions and thoughts and decides whether or not they are appropriate. By feeling guilty, we can adjust our behavior to make it socially acceptable, and it allows us to build strong social connections.

However, sometimes, this feeling may get out of control, turning into a force of self-destruction. Moreover, sometimes, people feel guilty for no reason. When guilt appears out of the blue, there’s nothing you could “fix” to ease this feeling. Therefore, it becomes very important to figure out what hides behind it so that you can address the root cause of the problem.

Guilt vs. Shame

Although guilt and shame have a lot in common, these are two different emotions. Moreover, neuroscientists found out that these feelings are associated with different processes in brain chemistry. Although both guilt and shame share an ultimate goal of self-correction, they are based on different assumptions and beliefs.

People feel guilty when they’ve done something that led to negative consequences. Therefore, guilt is about wrong actions or decisions. In contrast, shame isn’t about things we do but about ourselves as human beings. In other words, we feel ashamed when we think there’s something wrong with us.

How Guilt Works

According to the guilt definition from Merriam-Webster, guilt is a feeling of deserving blame. This feeling, however, depends on what we consider wrong, as well as what’s considered wrong by society. In other words, guilt is a tool that your mind uses to protect your values.

Besides, guilt can also help you recognize and understand your values. If you’ve done something that makes you feel guilty, that means that this action contradicts your values. Therefore, you likely won’t do it again in the future because now you know that this action leads to unpleasant emotions.

Accumulating guilt

When we experience emotions, we can either acknowledge them and deal with them appropriately, or try to ignore them. Unfortunately, when we fail to acknowledge our emotions, we often end up suppressing them. These emotions continue to exist in our subconscious, and they can accumulate.

When accumulated, guilt can find a way out unexpectedly, having a serious negative impact on your overall quality of life. For example, the guilt that you feel after something completely insignificant may get much stronger and last much longer because of being reinforced by something from the past you still feel guilty about.

Therefore, the best way to deal with guilt is to respond to it — for example, you may fix your mistake or apologize to somebody you’ve hurt. Resolving the issue, however, isn’t always possible. As a result, people may carry over their guilt, and this feeling may impact their behavior.

For instance, if a beggar came to you and asked for food, and then died of hunger after you ignored them, you would probably remember this experience and feel guilty. You could also find yourself donating a lot of money to charity organizations many years later because your subconscious would cope with the guilt this way.

Accumulated guilt can be difficult to cope with. If you realize that the feeling of guilt doesn’t go anywhere for a long time, you may want to talk to a therapist. For instance, you can try online therapy to figure out what fuels your guilt and stops you from enjoying your life.

Guilt and manipulation

Guilt is a very effective tool for manipulation. When someone feels guilty, they are willing to do anything necessary to ease this feeling and get rid of it. As a result, people often use guilt to control others, intentionally or unintentionally. For instance, parents often induce guilt in their children after they fail an exam so that their children will work harder in the future.

People in relationships also often use guilt after arguments to make their partner want to apologize and agree with them. Guilt is also widely used in religion. The concept of sin can make a person feel guilty, and this feeling may stop them from doing things that contradict their religious beliefs. For instance, catholic guilt is a quite common phenomenon that sometimes may even turn into mental health disorders.

Causes of Guilt

If you’re feeling guilty after you’ve done something wrong, the cause is pretty obvious. However, we’ve already mentioned that sometimes, this feeling comes out of nowhere. For example, people who survived disasters or wars often experience the so-called survivor’s guilt.

In this case, a person may feel guilty for not being able to prevent the disaster or save others. Obviously, this is an unhealthy type of guilt because it isn’t a result of any wrongdoings, and it may have a serious impact on your overall quality of life.

Here are some of the common underlying causes of guilt. If you’re feeling guilty but don’t know why, one or several of these factors might be the reason.

  • Anxiety

Anxiety can change your perception of your own behavior and thoughts, making you feel guilty even when you haven’t done anything bad. Anxiety can induce different kinds of guilt and also shame. For example, social anxiety can make a person feel guilty and ashamed of themselves because of the fear of being judged.

  • Trauma

Another common reason why people feel guilty is a history of trauma. Most often, this happens because of childhood trauma caused by poor parenting. Sometimes, parents blame children for their own bad decisions. Some parents may also use guilt as a manipulation tool.

As a result, a child may learn feelings of guilt and experience it for no reason, even many years later. Inappropriate parenting styles may also lead to the feeling of shame, inadequacy, and other signs of low self-esteem.

  • Social pressure

There are many factors that influence our perspective regarding whether or not we should feel guilty for our actions and thoughts. One of such factors is opinions from other people. Besides, some people feel a strong need for acceptance and social approval.

They want to meet other people’s expectations, and when they fail at it, they may feel guilty. Even those who don’t aim to fulfill other people’s expectations may deal with overly judgmental people and therefore feel guilty despite not doing anything wrong. Besides, social pressure can damage one’s self-esteem and sense of self-worth.

  • Religion

Unhealthy guilt is particularly common among religious people and those who were raised in religious families. For example, the feeling of guilt may develop because of doing something that contradicts your religious beliefs or even if you decide to move away from religion.

  • Culture

A lot also depends on what’s seen as appropriate and inappropriate in society. If your behavior or thoughts contradict cultural norms, you may feel guilty even if you don’t share common beliefs and don’t support these norms.

How to Deal With Guilt

As you can see, guilt isn’t always caused by wrongdoings. Sometimes, there are other factors hidden behind guilt. In this case, overcoming this unpleasant feeling might be particularly difficult. Besides, even when experiencing legit, healthy guilt, fixing your mistake isn’t always an option.

When guilt persists, it doesn’t help you improve but simply stops you from enjoying your life. It can impact your relationships, everyday activities, and self-esteem. If guilt doesn’t go away, you can benefit from talking to a mental health professional. Thanks to online therapy platforms like Calmerry, you don’t even need to leave your home to talk to a licensed therapist — video chat therapy offers the same benefits as traditional in-person sessions.

A therapist can help you figure out the root causes of guilt that you feel, help you develop self-compassion, and suggest effective coping practices. Learn more about the benefits of therapy so that you will know what to expect.

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