Understanding Guilt

What is Guilt?

Guilt and shame are often confused as the same thing, but in fact they are different emotions.  Shame refers to a sense of regret or responsibility that relates to one’s self, whereas guilt describes a sense of responsibility or regret for actions we have taken whether accidental or intentional. 

We are conditioned to feel guilty from our childhood, in other words it’s a learned emotion when we do something wrong.  Feeling guilty for things we have done wrong is not a bad thing, and we can learn from mistakes we make, which is positive and can lead to personal growth.  Extreme or chronic guilt can become a problem as it can lead to feelings of anxiety, low self-esteem, self-doubt, shame and even lead to feelings of depression or a guilt complex.

What is a Guilt Complex?

A guilt complex is when a person feels a persistent belief that they have either done or will do something wrong. They will feel constantly guilty and worried and this can cause them to feel anxious and have feelings of shame.  It can be caused by an imagined or actual harm they think they have done, or believing their actions have caused a greater impact than they have.  


Feelings of guilt can be caused for different reasons in people but the most common of these can include:

·      Society – we often feel pressure from society to meet certain standards and if we don’t we can feel shame, remorse and guilt when we feel we are being judged in a negative way.

·      Culture – we are brought up to conform to cultural norms, even if we have decided to move away from these beliefs and behaviours. This can often cause people to develop feelings of guilt for rejecting their heritage.

·      Religion – some religions are structured in a way to make us believe that if we don’t act in a certain way we will be guilty of not doing the right thing.

·       Family – if you were brought up in an environment where you were made to feel as though you were hiding something, doing something wrong or at fault, this could cause lingering guilt to carry forward into adult life.

·      Anxiety – if you are struggling with anxiety it can cause you to be negative and critical of your feelings and behaviours which can lead to feelings of guilt.

Physical Symptoms

People struggling with feelings of guilt can feel worried and regretful, be apologetic, clingy, irritable or on edge, but guilt can also cause physical symptoms such as:

·      Feeling tearful and crying

·      Sleep problems or insomnia

·      Headaches

·       Stomach, bowel or digestive problems

·      Muscle tension

Professional Help

If guilt is having an effect on your mental health you should consider seeing a therapist to help you understand and overcome your negative feelings.  Therapies such as counselling, psychotherapy, clinical hypnotherapy and CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) can all be effective in helping you recover.  Written by Jan, Jeana and Wendy at Barnsley Hypnosis and Counselling (UK). For more free Information click above link.