Mind Help


Guilt refers to a self-conscious emotion that people generally feel after attempting something wrong either intentionally or accidentally. Despite being mostly negative, people’s associations with it have some positive functions as well.

What Is Guilt?

Guilt is an intense emotion and a moral, ethical and self-conscious feeling characterized by serious self-reflection. It occurs when an individual feels that they have acted against their own personal beliefs & principles or socially accepted moral standards. They also believe that they need to experience serious consequences or responsibility for compromising such moral standards with their conduct. A person can feel guilty for a number of reasons, such as certain thoughts, emotions, behaviors, or actions that they consider are morally unacceptable. According to a 2010 study 1 , it is a “negative construct, reflecting inner pain and tension with negative consequences.” However, it can also be an intrinsically adaptive and even healthy construct that motivates reparation and increases the sense of responsibility by generating remorse

This emotion refers to a natural and emotional response that an individual gets after doing something that they perceive as “wrong”. It can be defined as a sense of regret or responsibility that is related to the actions taken. This specific emotion is mostly self-focused but involves several high social relevances. The basic concept of it is associated with a specific action or behavior such as committing an offense, attempting a mistake, or doing something hurtful and harmful either intentionally or unintentionally. A 2014 research paper 2 has suggested that the experience of guilt includes the perception that a person has transgressed rules of morality. Moral transgression is when a person attempts an offense that goes against a law or a code of conduct. According to a 2002 study 3 , remorse can be observed in almost all age groups from toddlers to adolescents to adults. This emotion is not necessarily negative, rather it can be productive sometimes. But research 4 has shown that excessive regret can lead to significant psychological symptoms that include anxious obsession, depression, self-doubt, and decreased self-esteem.

Understanding The Psychology Of Guilt

If people’s actions or behavior provoke negative impacts or results, this specific emotion informs them about their wrongdoings. This leads to one feeling guilty. Research 5 has explained that behavioral responses resulting from this emotion are automatically triggered in response to certain learned behaviors. Certain factors such as culture, family, religion, and upbringing may make it more likely that some people experience chronic guilt. Children who are consistently made to feel guilty by their parents suffer from a guilty complex 6 later. Those people who struggle a lot to cope up with the effects of excessive remorse or regret tend to have a higher risk for certain mental health disorders like depression 7 and anxiety.

Mental disorder patients often get overwhelmed by guilty feelings about their mental health conditions 8 . These feelings regarding any past mistake often set a person up for continued struggle. This emotion often creates barriers for an individual to maintain healthy relationships with others. But sometimes it helps one to make morally upright decisions.

Guilt And Shame

Guilt And Shame

These two concepts are closely associated while the basic ideas are not similar. These two are considered to be distinct affective experiences. Both of them are emotions of self-blame that arise in response to failures, social blunders, and transgressions. A 2018 research paper 9 has described the concept of shame as a negative and unpleasant feeling about the inadequacy to meet the standards of one’s ideal self. Meanwhile, guilty feelings are interlinked with a negative emotion implying an unpleasant self-evaluation against one’s moral standards. The study explains that shame is a nonmoral emotion and includes the nonmoral aspect of one’s self-esteem, while “in guilt it is the moral facet of one’s self-esteem… that suffers a blow.”

Signs Of Guilt

Signs Of Guilt

Being associated with depression, anxiety, other mental disorders, this emotional response often involves certain types of physical and psychological symptoms, which are mentioned below:

1. Psychological symptoms

Some of the common psychological signs of guilty feeling include:

  • Experiencing recurring obsessive thoughts
  • Anxiety, sadness, and low self-esteem
  • Being extremely sensitive to the effects of every action
  • Avoiding any full range of emotion
  • Being overwhelmed by making a wrong decision
  • Self-punishing and self-sabotaging behavior
  • Feeling undeserving
  • Putting others before oneself

2. Physical symptoms

Some of the most observed physical signs of this emotion include:

  • Sleeping disorders such as insomnia
  • Fatigue and stomach related problems like indigestion
  • Muscle pain and lethargy
  • Experiencing heaviness in the whole body

Types Of Guilt

It is a natural emotion, but researchers don’t always agree upon its connection with psychology. Certain studies have explained the positive impact of it while others have suggested that excessive remorse contributes to mental distress. Various types of this emotion may be overlapping, but they can be categorized into three general categories.

1. Reactive

It happens as a normal feeling of remorse when a person thinks that he/she has done something against their personal or society’s moral values.

2. Anticipatory or toxic

This type occurs as a sense of not being a good person or a feeling of letting other people down. This toxic type is associated with the signs of depression. But a study 10 has shown that anticipated guilt positively predicts many types of prosocial behavior.

3. Existential

It is the most complicated type of this emotion. A 2017 study has explained that existential guilty feelings occur when someone compares their own wellbeing and fortune with others. This negative feeling is often related to trauma that has arisen out of perceived injustice.

Causes Of Guilt

Several factors may contribute to the development of feelings of remorse such as:

1. Family

The lesson of right and wrongdoings starts from the family members, especially parents. The feeling of being guilty can be triggered within children after their parents express any kind of disappointment towards them. A 2017 research paper 11 suggests that parents, fathers, in particular, contribute to expressions of self-conscious emotions such as regret and shame in children.

Read More About Family Dynamics Here

2. Religious beliefs

Some religious beliefs play a key role in emphasizing guilty feelings. These beliefs make people realize if their actions are against the teachings of the religion. Research 12 says that people who violate religious norms may experience feelings of regret or shame. This emotion often stems from such beliefs and makes a person confess, repent, and fix the wrong.

3. Society and culture

This emotion is often triggered by worrying about other people’s opinions regarding certain actions and behaviors. A recent 2019 study 13 has shown that society may have a huge influence on a person’s sense of regret when an individual considers that his or her actions have violated a social moral norm and caused harm to others. Similar to this concept, when people’s certain behaviors are wrong according to their culture, it makes them feel guilty even if their own moral values support the doings.

4. Personality and mindset

People apologize when they have breached someone’s trust or did something wrong with them. Over-apologizing, on the other hand, can be induced from a myriad of formative childhood experiences. It can also be a way to avoid conflict. Some people are prone to feel sorry for their every action because of their low self-esteem. According to a 2016 study 14 , guilt-proneness is closely associated with depressive symptoms.

Read More About Big 5 Personality Traits Here

Psychological Effects Of Guilt

The psychological effects of this emotion can be proven very beneficial if they influence people to replace their wrong actions with the right ones. But sometimes the impacts are extremely stressful for a person.

1. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

Obsessive-compulsive disorder refers to recurring uncontrollable thoughts and actions. According to a 2017 research paper 15 , guilty feelings act as a motivator, or a predecessor, or an enabler for OCD. Patients with OCD perceive this emotion in a more threatening manner. One may feel guilty about certain actions and this thought may ingrain in their mind. This sense can cause obsession.

Read More About Obsessive-compulsive disorder Here

2. Depression

This emotion also enables the symptoms of depression. It manifests as people feeling guilty or bad about feeling depressed. “Feelings of guilt should be considered as a behavioral marker for a subtype of depression,” explains a 1992 study 16 . This association creates a swirling pool of negative and unwanted thoughts. Another 2017 research paper 17 found that inappropriate remorse is listed as a symptom of depression. Depression can develop within people with severe remorse issues.

Read More About Major Depressive Disorder ( Depression ) Here

3. Anxiety

Guilt is significantly associated with anxiety disorders. According to a 2010 study 18 , the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder are closely associated with guilty feelings. Anxiety fuels the feeling of being guilty and may persist for days, weeks, months, even years.

Read More About Generalized Anxiety Disorder Here

Coping With Guilty Feelings

Coping With Guilty Feelings

This emotion is often extremely difficult to overcome. But, it is possible to manage and control one’s feelings with the right coping and self-help strategies. One can achieve a more balanced thought process by adopting certain important ways. Here are the ways that can help you to overcome this emotion.

1. Accept your faults

Acceptance is extremely important in dealing with this emotion effectively. People should take responsibility for their wrongdoing, but accept that changing the past is not in their hands. It is typically a situational emotion. They should not crucially focus on the fact as the more they think about it the more it will bother them. But one should take action immediately after recognizing the issue.

2. Learn to move on

It is essential to let the feelings of regret go after trying every possible thing to make amends. One can focus on other productive activities only by moving on. A recent 2020 study 19 says that mindfulness is something that can help people in beginning the process of self-forgiveness.

3. Self-forgiveness

Instead of asking for forgiveness from others, one needs to learn to forgive oneself. This process is very crucial for one’s self-esteem, which is an extremely important element of the human experience. People require to learn to be compassionate with themselves even after feeling regretful.

4. Focus on the present

Stop thinking and worrying about your past actions and behaviors. A person should remember that no amount of rumination can change the past. Going over past situations again and again only contributes to trigger anxiety. Ruminating thoughts are excessive and intrusive thoughts about negative experiences and feelings. A 2013 research paper 20 suggests that people with an anxiety disorder may ruminate on specific fears or trauma. They continuously scan their mind for things that might go wrong. One needs to focus on the present and live life mindfully.

5. Avoid self-punishment

Self-punishment can often have a harmful impact. The best thing one can do is to learn from the mistake and never repeat it again. Remorse may cause one to feel undeserving, but people should not sabotage their well-being as a penalty or punishment.

6. Seek professional help

People should seek help from a mental health specialist if they are unable to control their guilty feelings. Professionals often suggest certain psychotherapies or medications in such conditions. These therapies can help one to process his/her emotions.

Overcoming The Emotion Of Guilt

It is a very common emotion that everyone experiences at some point in their lives. One needs to identify the type firstly that he/she is dealing with. All kinds of guilt are not always rational and purposeful. Certain types can interfere with one’s life and cause extreme physical and mental distress. It is important to address this emotion and learn to deal with it effectively. If it becomes uncontrollable, asking for professional help is the best way to cope with this.

  1. Tilghman-Osborne, C., Cole, D. A., & Felton, J. W. (2010). Definition and measurement of guilt: Implications for clinical research and practice. Clinical psychology review, 30(5), 536–546. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2010.03.007 []
  2. Tilghman-Osborne, C., Cole, D. A., & Felton, J. W. (2010). Definition and measurement of guilt: Implications for clinical research and practice. Clinical psychology review, 30(5), 536–546. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2010.03.007 []
  3. Kochanska, G., Gross, J. N., Lin, M. H., & Nichols, K. E. (2002). Guilt in young children: development, determinants, and relations with a broader system of standards. Child development, 73(2), 461–482. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8624.00418 []
  4. Prosen, M., Clark, D. C., Harrow, M., & Fawcett, J. (1983). Guilt and conscience in major depressive disorders. The American journal of psychiatry, 140(7), 839–844. https://doi.org/10.1176/ajp.140.7.839 []
  5. Aurélien, G., & Melody, M. (2019). A Theory of Guilt Appeals: A Review Showing the Importance of Investigating Cognitive Processes as Mediators between Emotion and Behavior. Behavioral sciences (Basel, Switzerland), 9(12), 117. https://doi.org/10.3390/bs9120117 []
  6. Easton B. (1997). Guilt complex. Nursing times, 93(24), 29–30. []
  7. Pulcu, E., Zahn, R., & Elliott, R. (2013). The role of self-blaming moral emotions in major depression and their impact on social-economical decision making. Frontiers in psychology, 4, 310. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00310 []
  8. Bub, K., & Lommen, M. (2017). The role of guilt in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. European journal of psychotraumatology, 8(1), 1407202. https://doi.org/10.1080/20008198.2017.1407202 []
  9. Miceli, M., & Castelfranchi, C. (2018). Reconsidering the Differences Between Shame and Guilt. Europe’s journal of psychology, 14(3), 710–733. https://doi.org/10.5964/ejop.v14i3.1564 []
  10. Erlandsson, A., Jungstrand, A. Å., & Västfjäll, D. (2016). Anticipated Guilt for Not Helping and Anticipated Warm Glow for Helping Are Differently Impacted by Personal Responsibility to Help. Frontiers in psychology, 7, 1475. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01475 []
  11. Parisette-Sparks, A., Bufferd, S. J., & Klein, D. N. (2017). Parental Predictors of Children’s Shame and Guilt at Age 6 in a Multimethod, Longitudinal Study. Journal of clinical child and adolescent psychology : the official journal for the Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, American Psychological Association, Division 53, 46(5), 721–731. https://doi.org/10.1080/15374416.2015.1063430 []
  12. Holt, C. L., Clark, E. M., & Roth, D. L. (2014). Positive and Negative Religious Beliefs Explaining the Religion-Health Connection Among African Americans. The International journal for the psychology of religion, 24(4), 311–331. https://doi.org/10.1080/10508619.2013.828993 []
  13. Aurélien, G., & Melody, M. (2019). A Theory of Guilt Appeals: A Review Showing the Importance of Investigating Cognitive Processes as Mediators between Emotion and Behavior. Behavioral sciences (Basel, Switzerland), 9(12), 117. https://doi.org/10.3390/bs9120117 []
  14. Young, C. M., Neighbors, C., Dibello, A. M., Traylor, Z. K., & Tomkins, M. (2016). Shame and Guilt-Proneness as Mediators of Associations Between General Causality Orientations and Depressive Symptoms. Journal of social and clinical psychology, 35(5), 357–370. https://doi.org/10.1521/jscp.2016.35.5.357 []
  15. Melli, G., Carraresi, C., Poli, A., Marazziti, D., & Pinto, A. (2017). The role of guilt sensitivity in OCD symptom dimensions. Clinical psychology & psychotherapy, 24(5), 1079–1089. https://doi.org/10.1002/cpp.2071 []
  16. Berrios, G. E., Bulbena, A., Bakshi, N., Dening, T. R., Jenaway, A., Markar, H., Martin-Santos, R., & Mitchell, S. L. (1992). Feelings of guilt in major depression. Conceptual and psychometric aspects. The British journal of psychiatry : the journal of mental science, 160, 781–787. https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.160.6.781 []
  17. Tilghman-Osborne, C., Cole, D. A., & Felton, J. W. (2012). Inappropriate and excessive guilt: instrument validation and developmental differences in relation to depression. Journal of abnormal child psychology, 40(4), 607–620. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-011-9591-6 []
  18. Fergus, T. A., Valentiner, D. P., McGrath, P. B., & Jencius, S. (2010). Shame- and guilt-proneness: relationships with anxiety disorder symptoms in a clinical sample. Journal of anxiety disorders, 24(8), 811–815. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2010.06.002 []
  19. Perilli, E., Perazzini, M., Di Giacomo, D., Marrelli, A., & Ciuffini, R. (2020). Attitudine “mindful”, emozioni e perdono di sé in adolescenza: una ricerca correlazionale [Mindfulness attitude, emotions and forgiveness in adolescence: a correlational research]. Rivista di psichiatria55(5), 308–318. https://doi.org/10.1708/0000.34024 []
  20. Michl, L. C., McLaughlin, K. A., Shepherd, K., & Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2013). Rumination as a mechanism linking stressful life events to symptoms of depression and anxiety: longitudinal evidence in early adolescents and adults. Journal of abnormal psychology, 122(2), 339–352. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0031994 []