We may all know the feeling of guilt but what does it really mean to feel guilty? Why do we feel guilty about the things we feel guilty for? Why do some people feel guilty all the time or feel guilty for no reason? What can we learn from feeling guilty? And how can we set ourselves free from the burden guilt brings so we can truly express ourselves? Having studied and published research on guilt, I will seek to answer all of these questions in this article to demonstrate how you can process your feelings of guilt to find freedom.
Guilt is an emotional experience related to a perception that your thoughts or actions have transgressed a moral boundary. The focus in an experience of guilt is on the action and the outcome of that action, rather than on what it means about who you are as a person to have broken certain moral expectations. You can feel guilty but still feel good, for example, if breaking socially acceptable standards are important to the integrity of who you are. Typically, however, experiences of guilt involve a focus on how breaking certain rules have disadvantaged or harmed another person and often come with a desire to repair or make amends. While this kind of guilt can be hard to deal with, where you cannot make amends or repair the harm done the guilt feels more intense and causes long lasting emotional pain.
What does it mean to feel guilty?
An experience of an emotion is a constellation of a range of factors (for a discussion on what emotions are see this post). For guilt, the core factor is transgressing a moral boundary. This means that you have broken a code, rule, standard or expectation that is considered to be important to uphold by you, those in your social circle, or your wider society.
This core component of guilt is different to what you might read in psychology textbooks. This is because a lot of psychology is based on a certain type of research method, which is limited and so provides limited results. When you actually find out about how people experience guilt in the real world you get to this core component (see my own research here).
Let’s take an example to illustrate why this core component is core to the experience of guilt. In my own research I observed some people who believed it was important to be productive at work. This manifested itself as being busy. During a particularly quiet period there was little to do and so they were inadvertently breaking the moral code of being productive (busy). They described to me feeling guilty for not being busy, even though it was not their fault, and there were no detrimental consequences for them not being busy. They had simply, and unintentionally, broken the unwritten rule about what was important in their workplace.
I am sure you will have experienced this yourself. You will at some point have felt guilty for breaking a rule - your own or someone else’s - even though it didn’t matter to anyone (there were no adverse consequences, nothing was been damaged, and no one hurt or harmed). You simply transgressed a moral boundary that existed in your mind.
Feeling bad while feeling guilty
Guilt is typically associated with feeling bad so I refer to this as a typical component, rather than a core component.
A typical experience of guilt relates to breaking a particular social rule or expectation and as a consequence feels bad about it. You may feel bad because you feel you are letting someone down (even if you aren’t). Breaking rules usually feels wrong and very few people want to feel they are doing things wrong!
Often, guilt can be a signal that we have done something that we shouldn’t have and a sign we should do something about it.
Feeling good while feeling guilty
Unusually, and almost entirely absent from the psychological literature on guilt, are experiences of feeling good while feeling guilty. But this is more common that you may have been led to believe.
Let’s take another example from my research. I observed social workers visiting parents to tell them about concerns people had about their parenting. Often the parents would get upset. Sometimes the social workers had to go to Court to try and make sure the child was safe by placing them away from family members. Many of the social workers told me about feeling guilty about upsetting the parents but proud about what they were doing. They said they felt guilty but good.
You may have felt this yourself. You may have broken a rule and felt good about it or excited even. Feeling that you are doing something wrong doesn’t have to feel bad if you are questioning the foundation of the rule.
History is full of examples of people questioning the authority of the people making the rules that others are bound by. Black people, women, and LGBTQ people have all fought for their rights against a system that casts some aspect of who they are as wrong or ‘less than’. They may have felt guilty for having to break rules to fight for their rights but they also felt good for challenging the system, oppression and discrimination.
Feeling personally responsible
While you do not have to be responsible for transgressing a moral boundary to feel guilty, usually feeling guilty involves a sense of personal responsibility for such transgression.
It is the personal responsibility part that can make experiences of guilt feel hard to deal with.
Focusing on other people
The research generally shows that, typically, feeling guilty comes with a focus on other people.
As opposed to experiences of shame, which are experiences inherently focused on the ‘self’ and how bad, wrong, or inadequate you feel, feeling guilty is an experience of thinking and feeling what it might be like in someone else’s shoes.
Disadvantaging someone else
So we have seen so far that a typical guilt situation is one where you feel personally responsible for transgressing a moral boundary while focusing on other people.
If no harm has been done the experience is manageable or even negligible. But if it is coupled with someone else being disadvantaged or harmed, that feeling of guilt becomes much more intense.
I use the term disadvantaged because the research shows that it isn’t just about harming another person.
Say you applied for a job and were successful. This usually means that someone else was not successful. If you know them you may feel guilty for them not getting the job. If you know their situation and believe they really needed the job, then that sense of guilt may be even more intense. You did not intend to disadvantage or harm them, but you were involved in that outcome.
Harming someone else
You may be more familiar with the notion of guilt related to harming someone else. It is how the emotion is usually portrayed in the media.
We often see guilt being associated with fights in relationships where someone says or does something to hurt the other person. Or we see someone doing something behind someone else’s back to get back at them, only to feel guilty about it at a later date. Or we see a person has done something that they later realise has hurt someone they love.
It is these forms of guilt that are most difficult to deal with. Knowing that we have been involved in harming or hurting someone we care about is hard.
Repairing or making amends
Because we are focused on other people in experiences of guilt and we feel responsible for doing something wrong, when someone else is harmed or hurt we seek to repair the damage or make amends for the wrongdoing.
You may say sorry, make much larger gestures than usual, even go over the top in doing something nice for them to make the feeling of guilt disappear.
These motivations are part of the typical experience of guilt and they are the reason guilt can be a way to exert power and control over another .
Being made to feel guilty as a form of control
We have all experienced someone else trying to make us feel guilty for some reason.
Sometimes this is justified. My wife may complain about what I do, not because she wants to control me, but because she wants me to see the effect of my behaviour on her. This can result in me feeling guilty because I have realised what I have done and then I seek to make amends and this can strengthen our relationship (it also happens the other way around!).
But sometimes this is a form of power and control. If someone manipulates the perception of a situation sufficiently they can make you feel guilty and therefore open to doing what they want to repair the perceived damage. All it takes is a complaint that someone else is responsible for harming or disadvantaging them.
Protection from such manipulation requires trust in yourself and how you feel. You need to know how to feel your emotions and what they mean so you can identify when something doesn’t feel right. I know deep down when my wife tells me something that is true and I can trust my feelings of guilt. We can also know deep down when something is not true and we can trust our feelings of anger and suspicion - it just takes a little bit of knowledge, practice, experience, and support!
Feeling guilty when you cannot repair or make amends
The psychological literature is again almost silent on the most difficult, painful, and damaging form of guilt: When you cannot repair any damage done or make amends for the harm created.
One of the reasons guilt is not considered as powerful or intense an emotion as shame in the research is because the desire to put things right gives hope and possibility in experiences of guilt. The research shows that experiencing guilt is pro-social, i.e. it makes people approach other people in more helpful, kind, and friendly ways.
But there are situations in which it is not possible to put things right and in these situations the guilt can be as unbearable as shame.
Say you have done something that has really hurt someone you care deeply for and that person leaves you, never to be seen again. You might feel guilty for the harm you caused but the fact that you cannot find them, speak to them, and make up for the pain, leaves that feeling of guilt unresolved.
Unresolved guilt is toxic. This means it can lead to attempts to either avoid situations in which it could happen again or inappropriately make amends (which means you try to make amends with people other than the person you hurt/harmed). Someone could become overly accepting of another’s perspective, overly giving, overly neglectful of what they need, all in vain attempts to put things right. The guilt has led to the person acting from that guilt rather than honestly and truly expressing themselves.
Where this toxic guilt also includes feelings of shame - where you feel bad about yourself as well as bad about what you have done and how that hurt someone else - you have a very powerful mix of emotions that starts to erode your ability to be who you really are, to know what you really feel, and to trust in yourself, friends, family, and the world more generally.
Why do some people feel guilty all the time?
You can feel guilty all the time if you have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility.
This happens when others have imposed this perspective on you - usually at an early age. It stems from a denial of the child’s experience and a refashioning of this experience by diminishing the importance of the self and exaggerating the importance of the other.
This is sometimes done unintentionally. You could have grown up with parents with mental health problems, alcohol or substance dependency, or dysfunctional adult relationships, which require the child to respond in age inappropriate ways. This could be by looking after their parent or siblings (called parentification in the psychological literature), having to prioritise the needs of others above their own, or doing the worrying about the physical and emotional safety as well as the financial situation of those in the home.
But it can also be done intentionally. Abuse and maltreatment can take the form of manipulation in which the adult imposes a perception that they are being wronged or harmed by the child and that they need to make amends for this harm. This distortion of reality becomes a part of how they see themselves and the world.
Either way, the effect of these situations is that the child learns to see themselves as responsible and that they need to prioritise others needs above their own in all contexts. This becomes a way of being.
Because you cannot be responsible for others - certainly not all the time - you feel guilty all the time for breaking that unwritten rule that was given at an early age.
Why do some people feel guilty for no reason?
You can feel guilty for no reason because you have an ingrained feeling that you are doing things wrong (constant moral transgressions).
This happens because the messages you got when you growing up was that there were lots of rules, standards, and expectations that you were constantly breaking.
It may be that the parent/carer was overly harsh, strict, or authoritarian, and the rules were inappropriate for the age and development stage of the child. It is unreasonable to expect a 3 year old to live by the rules we would expect of a 10 year old, for example. Imposing such rules means the child will always be getting things wrong.
Equally, it can stem from abuse and maltreatment. If the parent/carer willfully sought to punish a child (which sadly happens for many reasons) then using arbitrary rules to show how the child keeps getting things wrong is one way of doing that.
Either way, the result is the imposition of a worldview that involves a wide range of rules that are hard to know and understand, leaving the child (and later as an adult) with a sense that they are breaking the rules without knowing them and so they feel guilty for no reason.
How can you set yourself free from the burden of guilt?
By now you will see that guilt is not good or bad but rather it is a feeling that is telling you something about your relationship with your environment. You may have broken a rule. You may think it was good to break the rule. You may have hurt someone else. You may be being manipulated. You may be responding to your past experiences and misinterpreting the present situation.
Whatever it is, you need to find a resolution to feeling guilty or you run the risk of that guilt becoming toxic to how you express yourself and how you relate to others.
Resolving your guilt allows you to understand yourself more, grow as a person, strengthen your relationships, and be clearer about what you want and need.
To do this, you need to learn how to feel in the present, explore your past, and ensure you have and maintain healthy boundaries.
Learning to feel in the present
The start of any resolution to feelings has to start with how you are really feeling. This may sound simple, but it is actually a complex skill.
We are not taught how to feel in any formal way. We are left to make sense of our feelings on our own. Some people repress or suppress how they feel, others can exaggerate or act out how they feel. If you want to know your tendency then you can take this quiz to find out:
You can start to learn how you feel by engaging in a process of feeling. Being conscious of your bodily sensations, noticing what happens in your body when you feel guilty, and being aware of these sensations when they arise.
You can start to express your emotions in more healthy ways by engaging in a process of learning and practising how to do it. This may require you to work with someone else - such as a coach or in a live group session - to recognise your feelings and learn the skills you need to express them. It is a lifelong process, which is why it is important to learn from experienced people to lay effective foundations for this ongoing process.
Once you become aware of how you feel guilt and have learnt how to express it in a healthy way, you will be able to communicate with others about your guilt, what is your responsibility, what harm has been done, and what you need to do to make amends (if anything).
You can feel proud of being able to engage in such a process. The other person will feel heard and understood and respected. The relationship will grow and strengthen in the knowledge that this kind of conversation is a good foundation for future conflict resolution. And you can feel good in the knowledge that you have the ability to resolve your feelings of guilt without feeling overwhelmed or resorting to unhealthy patterns of behaviour to alleviate the feelings of guilt.
Exploring your past
How we feel is inherently tied up with our past experiences (see this post for more on this discussion). We are not always responding in the present to the present situation. Rather we may be reminded, consciously or otherwise, of past experiences, which can lead to us misperceiving the situation as the same as our past experience.
This can lead to feelings that are inappropriate for the context. We could overreact by becoming extremely angry because our perception of the situation brings all the anger out from how we have been made to feel when we were younger. We could become overly apologetic because we see the situation as being the same as previous experiences where we had to be apologetic as a form of self-protection.
If we have not explored our past, we are destined to repeat it in different ways, with different people, but without resolving the pain and suffering we have endured.
We will not know what the guilt we feel really means, because it is likely to get caught up in our unresolved issues, experiences, and emotions from the past. Only by exploring the past will we be able to know what our guilt means and therefore what we need to do about it. Only by exploring the past will we be able to express ourselves honestly in the present and develop and strengthen our relationships.
You can do a lot of work on yourself on your own but it will only take you so far. Your mind is not able to see itself from the outside and so if you really want to know yourself so you can get the most from life, you do need to engage in a process of self-discovery with others. This could be through 1 to 1 coaching or therapy or live group education or therapy sessions. They can all be really freeing.
Creating healthy boundaries
Healthy boundaries are the cornerstone of emotional health and wellbeing. You can know all there is to know about yourself but if you cannot say no (see this article if you struggle with saying no), if you struggle to say what you want and need in arguments (if this is you then read this article), or struggle to hold people to account, then other people will walk all over you.
You are likely to feel guilty then for not sticking up for yourself or agreeing to do things you don’t want to do!
Creating healthy boundaries starts with knowing yourself and what you need. It is about having the confidence and skill to challenge others in the face of conflict and being able to be uncomfortable with others being annoyed at you. It is about not letting others take advantage of you so you feel overloaded, under-appreciated, and stressed.
All of this takes some time to learn, both in relation to who you are and in relation to how to defend and maintain your boundaries. But again this can be done with practise, experience, and support of skilled helpers.
To sum up
Guilt is a useful emotion. It tells you a lot about what is going on in your life. If you know what you feel, know yourself, and know where your boundaries are, guilt is your friend. It will let you know what you need to do to be more yourself and improve your relationships.
But if you have not have not done much work on your emotions, your past, or creating healthy boundaries then guilt can be a painful and difficult emotion to deal with. It can lead you to avoid situations, people, and relationships. It can lead you to act in ways that aren’t you. It can damage your relationships.
Taking the first steps to being able to deal with guilt is much like the first steps to dealing with fear and shame. Not only is it possible to do but it can fundamentally change your life for the better. You just have to be brave enough to do what our culture does not want us to do - become educated about our emotions (for an article on developing emotional maturity read this).