What is the feeling of guilt?
The feeling of guilt is an emotionally unpleasant state of a moral nature, which does not necessarily depend on the fact that said thought or action is known to others.
“This feeling of guilt is produced by the transgression of personal or social ethical norms.”
Thus, guilt involves other emotions such as helplessness, anguish, sadness or remorse for something that could have been done or that has been done inappropriately. That is, you may also feel guilty for a thought or action that did not take place .
In this way, guilt appears when you decide yourself that a fault has been committed and that you should be punished for it.
In short, the feeling of guilt develops not only due to the causal act (real or imaginary) itself, but also due to the negative perception and self-assessment of it.
But why is there the feeling of guilt if it is the cause of great discomfort? Contrary to what it may seem, guilt has an adaptive function. By acknowledging one’s own mistakes, the need arises to repair the fault , acting accordingly in the future.
However, certain people are not able to recognize their own limits and accept their responsibility. Thus, they do not understand guilt as a form of learning, being inflexible and punishing themselves excessively, causing intense emotional distress.
Types of feelings of guilt.
These types of guilt summarize the origin of it, as well as the consequences that it will have for the person in the long term:
- The fault empathic : Is that comes to empathize with the suffering of the other, being responsible for such suffering. It induces reflection on one’s own values and priorities, deciding to act in a less selfish and considerate way with others.
- Guilt for the transgression of one’s own values : It is the most rational, since it appears when one is aware that one is acting contradicting one’s own values.
- The fault Neurotic : The maladaptive and paralyzing guilt of which will be discussed in this article,one that feeds the anxiety involving transgression and aggression toward self or others.
How does the feeling of guilt manifest itself?
“When you feel guilty, you tend to believe that you do not deserve to be happy for the damage caused, because it has been the cause of unhappiness in the other.”
Thus, the person tends to take excessive responsibility for the happiness of others, magnifying any mistake. Is excessively self-critical, being overly affected by the opinion or criticism of others. She constantly apologizes in order not to hurt others and not to be rejected.
The latter is especially relevant, since when one has a constant feeling of guilt, they tend to attribute the treatment received only to their actions , so that the only one who can make mistakes in the relationship is oneself and, as they are disqualified for their mistakes Past, consider that if you do not always satisfy others they will end up rejecting and abandoning you, because it has little value compared to the rest.
For this reason, the person no longer only feels obliged to satisfy others, but the limits of self-protection are blurred : they tend to shut up when something bothers them and it is very difficult for them to refuse something, that is, they give up maintaining an assertive relationship in order to maintain a relationship that they consider undeserved or unworthy of them.
How is guilt different from responsibility or shame?
While guilt leads to the devaluation of oneself as an individual in its entirety due to the harm caused:
“Responsibility is an attitude focused on the present and the future, which allows taking charge of the consequences of one’s actions.”
On the other hand, although shame and guilt have the function of regulating and preserving emotional ties and appear simultaneously at the evolutionary level (between two and three years), guilt implies the introjection of the beliefs of the environment and the greatest fear it is the punishment or revenge of the other. In contrast, shame is not usually due to a specific behavior and is more related to fear of social exclusion and loss of reputation.
When does guilt become a problem?
As previously mentioned, guilt has a redemptive function, it serves to promote change, modifying behavior considered inappropriate, thereby restoring personal balance. However, the blame dysfunctional :
“Not only does it not help to solve the problem, but it aggravates it, since it invades the person and does not allow him to act.”
Therefore, it is not only important why you blame yourself, but how you do it: establishing an internal dialogue full of disqualifications and self-punishment due to intolerance towards oneself. In this way, the person is not only unable to take responsibility for their actions , but also avoids and flees from situations that evoke their internal conflict.
Consequences of excess guilt.
Guilt can end up affecting social life, since the person can end up isolating themselves by feeling unworthy, minimizing their achievements and magnifying their mistakes. This, in turn, can lead to emotional problems such as low self-esteem, anxiety or even depression , as the person tends to fall into obsessive and self-destructive thoughts in which reproach, frustration and irritability are frequent.
In addition, as mentioned in a previous section:
“Dysfunctional guilt can cause a person to stop respecting themselves and start making unhealthy decisions – unconsciously – to compensate for what happened.”
On the other hand, this vulnerability can lead the person to develop an affective dependency that can be used by other people to manipulate it through guilt , complicating their relationships.
Likewise, this stress generated by being chained to the past can end up causing health problems , especially of a psychosomatic nature (headache, stomach pain, etc.).
In conclusion, it is no longer that the person does not learn from what happened, but that he develops a helplessness and self- restricts in order to redeem himself .
What is the origin of the guilt?
According to Freud, the person is made up of three intrapsychic instances with antagonistic interests, which govern their way of thinking and acting:
- This : Seeks immediate pleasure regardless of the consequences, it is the most primitive part of the human being, which prevails during the first two years of life.
- Me : From the age of two, the “I” begins to consider the consequences of its own actions and begins to be governed by the principle of reality and pragmatism. Thus, he copes with the “it”, but without allowing himself to be suffocated by the “superego”.
- Superego : Around three years of life, the infant begins to internalize the socially agreed norms through socialization. The “superego” tries to stop the “it” drives by restricting those behaviors that do not fulfill the idea of perfection and good.
Thus, guilt appears when the person recognizes himself in the committed transgression, that is, when his “superego” identifies him as guilty .
But who configures the “superego”? When one is young, parents and other people in the environment transmit their disappointment when they have bad behavior, punishing the child. Thus, in a more or less conscious way:
“They teach what thoughts and actions one has to feel guilty about, so that the child wants to change his behavior to regain the approval of the adult.”
Guilt and moral conscience.
Over time, people tend to associate the approval of others to act correctly, seeking external approval even at the cost of their desires and beliefs, alienating itself with socially desirable to continue in the group of reference , which responds to certain code of conduct.
Transgressing these norms generates a conflict that results in a feeling of guilt, influencing behavior. For this reason, antisocial people, lacking empathy, do not show difficulties when it comes to breaking the rules, just as emotionally dependent people are more easily manipulated by preferring to follow rules imposed by others, thus avoiding pain and possible feeling guilty for losing approval.
The origin of guilt is related to the development of moral conscience (see next section). It is also influenced by educational patterns, such as gender differences and individual differences.
At what age do you begin to feel guilt?
Unlike other emotions, guilt develops in parallel with moral reasoning, so that the ability to interpret social situations must have developed previously. Thus, although the feeling of guilt can be distinguished at a very early age (at eighteen months) , the process of socialization, the development of consciousness and even that of one’s own temperament means that, as children grow older, they are able to anticipate the feeling of guilt. However, certain researchers consider that:
“Up to six or seven years, children consider the causes of guilt as uncontrollable and, therefore, unavoidable.”
Regarding the influence of educational styles on the development of guilt, it has been found that those based on psychological punishment provoke intense feelings of guilt ; unlike physical punishment, which elicits aggressive responses.
The brain mechanism that explains the maintenance of guilt.
Shame, pride, and guilt have been found to activate similar neural circuits, nonetheless:
“Only shame and guilt activate the brain’s reward system (the nucleus accumbens), which physiologically predisposes to feeling guilty.”
Although the downsides of feeling guilty often outweigh the benefits, research has found that people who are more likely to feel guilty tend to try harder and perform better , being perceived as more capable leaders. Therefore, they are often perceived as better employees, as well as best friends and lovers.
Likewise, there is a certain tendency to believe that by feeling guilty one will be exonerated and that, if one feels guilty, it shows that he cares about the consequences of his actions and for others, that is, that he is a person worthy of being loved because this It shows that you are a good person.
What psychological aspects favor excess guilt?
There are certain personality traits that make the person more vulnerable when it comes to staying anchored to the feeling of guilt:
- Low self – esteem : People with low self-esteem are afraid of being wrong, since any setback is experienced as a failure. This in turn confirms your negative beliefs about your personal worth.
- Rumination : People who tend to be obsessed with what happened overanalyze situations and criticize themselves excessively for failures that are part of everyday life.
- Perfectionism : The more rigid the rules themselves, the easier it is to go beyond their limits, fostering higher guilt due to the high level of self-demand, which can lead to greater frustration.
- Poor emotional regulation : Life experiences in which the person was not able to face situations as they would have liked causes conflict to be feared, because if assertiveness or anger control has not been worked on, problems when facing the conflict they tend to become chronic.
- Affective dependence : The fear of rejection and, consequently, the constant need for approval from others, makes each mistake be seen as a possibility of being separated from others.
“In summary, introversion coupled with properly obsessive traits (perfectionism or rumination) can make the person more vulnerable to excessive guilt.”
This, together with possible psychological problems such as poor personal regulation, low self-esteem or affective dependence, makes the person tend to feel an excess of guilt.
Strategies to overcome the feeling of guilt.
Guilt can become a form of avoidance because it keeps the person anchored to responsibility not assumed in the past. This attitude is harmful by avoiding the risks of growing and developing in the present. Therefore, the next blog entry will address different strategies to learn to overcome the feeling of guilt.
Alexa Clark specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. She has experience in listening and welcoming in Individual Therapy and Couples Therapy. It meets demands such as generalized anxiety, professional, love and family conflicts, stress, depression, sexual dysfunction, grief, and adolescents from 15 years of age. Over the years, She felt the need to conduct the psychotherapy sessions with subtlety since She understands that the psychologist acts as a facilitator of self-understanding and self-acceptance, valuing each person's respect, uniqueness, and acceptance.