Discover what to do when you’re feeling guilty.
Guilt is an emotion that makes us think more about ourselves by having us reflect on how we have acted in the past. Psychologists call this a self-conscious emotion due to the focus on ourselves. We feel guilt “in response to a broad range of feelings, transgressions, and social blunders” (Kazdin, 2000, pg. 40). In other words, guilt is not limited to one certain action or event. What makes one person feel guilty might not make another person feel bad at all.
However, when we do feel guilty, we are driven to act. Guilt is characterized by a willingness or readiness to try again to fix the wrong that has been done.
Now that we know what guilt is, it is important to understand what it is not. Guilt is often confused with the related emotion of shame, but the two are very different emotions. Both emotions are self-focused, meaning that they make us think more and more about ourselves. However, guilt is focused on the action while shame is all about our identity. When we feel ashamed, we feel that our failures make us bad people. When we feel guilty, we feel that what we did was wrong. In other words, “guilt doesn’t threaten [our] core identity”, but shame does (Kazdin, 2000, p. 40).
These two feelings also typically lead to very different behaviors. Because it is just about our behavior, guilt can lead us to others as we seek to apologize or repair the wrong. In this way, guilt can lead us out of ourselves. Shame, on the other hand, tends to turn us inwards and draw us away from others. Since shame makes us feel insecure about who we are at the core, we become insecure in our relationships. June Tangey, a researcher who studies these emotions, says that shame is also tied to anger while guilt is tied to empathy (Tangney & Dearing, 2002).
Because it is such an unpleasant feeling, guilt often has a bad reputation. But studies in psychology show that the feeling of guilt may drive us to engage in positive behaviors. Guilt has been connected to helping behavior. That means that when we feel guilty we are more likely to help someone else (Miller, 2010). Guilt might also make us more honest. In one study Ma et al. (2022) found that preschool children were more likely to be honest about cheating when they felt guilty than when they felt sad.
Additionally, guilt may make us more prone to empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand someone else’s feelings and point of view. When we are feeling empathetic, we are more likely to help someone and be less angry at them. Research has shown that when feeling guilty (instead of ashamed) we feel more empathy for the person that we have wronged (Kazdin, 2000).
“Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.”
When it comes down to it, guilt is an uncomfortable emotion, and, as we have discovered, feeling too much of it could lead to mental health issues. But we all know that we mess up and will probably feel guilty again. So how do we deal with that heavy feeling?
As awkward as it may be, telling the truth is one way to ease feelings of guilt. In a study done by Peer et al. (2014), people who confessed fully to unethical behavior (in this case, cheating on an exam) felt better than people who did not confess or only confessed partially. This tells us that coming clean may ease that burden of guilt we feel in our chest.
Guilt can lead us to seek repair in relationships and fix the wrongs that have been done. Allowing guilt to drive us to these actions and then moving on from feeling guilty is one way that we can feel guilt and then move on. Connected to this is the idea of avoiding rumination. Once repair has been sought, nothing else can be done. Forgiving yourself and moving on is key to letting go of guilt.
Guilt and shame are not the same emotion, but they often go hand in hand. Parsing out shame and guilt could be helpful for self-awareness. Making sure that we do not generalize a mistake we made to our core personhood is key in making the most of guilt without succumbing to shame.
Guilt is not something that we generally like to feel. It makes us doubt our actions and focus on the past. But, as we have seen in this article, guilt has both positive and negative consequences. Often guilt can lead us to strive to do better in the future and fix our relationships in the present. However, an excess of guilt can lead us to ruminate on the past and even harm our mental health. Hopefully, now you know more about what guilt is and where it comes from so that you can feel it and use it to repair relationships and feel empathy for others.
● Kazdin, A. E. (2000). Encyclopedia of psychology. Washington, D.C: American Psychological Association.
● Ma, F., An, R., Wu, D., Luo, X., Xu, F., & Lagattuta, K. H. (2022). Guilt promotes honesty in preschoolers. Developmental psychology, 58(4), 693–699.
● Miller, C. (2010). Guilt and Helping. Advances in Psychology Research. Alexandra Columbis (ed.). Volume 68. New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2010, 117-138.
● Tangney, J. P., & Dearing, R. L. (2002). Shame and guilt. Guilford Press.