Guilt is the sense that harm was done — to you or another — and the blame may fall at your feet.

Relating to the pain you’ve caused someone or breaking your moral code are two of the core reasons you may experience guilt.

Whether you broke your partner’s favorite pen, forgot an important anniversary, or cheated your way to a promotion, feeling a sense of wrongdoing is equated with the emotion of guilt.

In other words, guilt is the emotional response that accompanies feeling responsible for a negative outcome.

Mistakes are a part of life, and it’s natural to experience guilt when your decisions or actions have negative repercussions. In fact, guilt can be a powerful learning tool for personal growth. But guilt may also be linked to events where you have no control or ill intention.

Guilt is feeling self-conscious and experiencing a sense of distress about your potential responsibility for a negative outcome.

Like all self-conscious emotions, guilt originates from a process of self-evaluation and introspection and may involve your perception of how others value you.

Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud originally proposed humans experience guilt for the first time from a fear of parental punishment. Other psychological models of the concept suggest that guilt rather comes from a personal sense of love and compassion toward others, and it’s a result of feeling responsible for harming something you value or hold worth in.

“In psychology, guilt is an emotional experience that occurs when a person believes or realizes — correctly or not — that they have compromised their values or morality in some way,” explains Dr. Harold Hong, a board certified psychiatrist from Raleigh, North Carolina.

Types of guilt

Many psychological models about the concept of guilt have existed. Each of those has featured different terminology for similar concepts.

Some research identifies two primary forms of guilt:

  • Deontological: Guilt that results from breaking personal values or morals.
  • Altruistic: Empathetic guilt from causing harm to someone else.

A third form of guilt, existential guilt, is also regularly mentioned and defined as experiencing guilt for not living up to your expectations and life purpose.

Other researchers propose that guilt can also be broken down into additional subtypes, including:

  • Non-related guilt: Guilt that arises without a clear relationship between your actions and an outcome (e.g., survivor guilt).
  • Inequality guilt: A sense of guilt based on circumstances of imbalance (e.g., gender bias or racial discrimination).

When you feel guilty for something you did, the reasons may be evident to you. You came up with an excuse at work to get an extra day off, for example, when you know it left your coworkers short-handed.

You realize your decision directly affected your coworkers, and that’s why you feel guilty.

But feeling guilty for something you didn’t do is also possible. Survivor guilt, for example, is a type of guilt that comes from knowing others may be going or have gone through traumatic events and you haven’t.

For example, this type of guilt may come from feeling unworthy of your good fortune. It is a common emotion among those who have survived acts of terror, natural disasters, or other types of tragedies.

‘Why do I feel guilty all the time?’

Guilt is a natural emotion and one that can be a positive motivator in human learning. Chronic or persistent guilt, however, may indicate the presence of a mental health condition.

Dr. Ellen Albertson, a psychologist from Burlington, Vermont, indicates chronic or persistent guilt can be linked to:

Feelings of guilt aren’t limited to these conditions. Other mental health disorders may cause unexplained or persistent guilt and similar self-conscious emotions like shame and regret.

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Your experience of guilt is unique, but common signs may include the following:

  • low self-esteem
  • excessive attempts at reparation
  • being unable to meet someone’s gaze
  • facial flushing
  • anxiety
  • trouble sleeping
  • nausea
  • headaches
  • depressed mood
  • avoidance of people, places, or events linked to the cause of guilt
  • shifts in energy levels
  • emotional outbursts
  • appetite changes

What is a guilty conscience?

Your conscious, or consciousness, is your awareness of self. Your conscience is your innate ability to perceive right from wrong.

When you have a guilty conscience, you may be experiencing distress from a decision that conflicted with your moral compass.

“A guilty conscious” is sometimes used to infer someone knows they’re in the wrong but may not admit it despite feeling distressed by it.

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Guilt isn’t inherently bad. Colleen Wenner, a licensed mental health counselor from Fort Walton Beach, Florida, says guilt can motivate you to change your behavior positively to avoid feeling guilty again.

She points out that guilt is often associated with emotional effects like:

  • anger
  • sadness
  • fear
  • shame
  • embarrassment
  • disgust
  • disgrace
  • a sense of inferiority

Guilt can also impact your interpersonal relationships. Wenner indicates common social effects of guilt include:

  • withdrawal
  • aggression
  • vengefulness
  • blame shifting
  • violence

Guilt vs. remorse

Guilt and remorse are closely related but not the same.

Guilt tends to be linked to a negative perception of specific behavior or events, while shame indicates a negative judgment of yourself.

“One of the key differences is that remorse is typically associated with a desire to make amends, whereas guilt may not always involve this type of motivation,” says Hong.

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It’s natural to experience guilt now and then; there are ways to help you work through the emotion when you’re feeling “stuck.”

Using guilt to create positive behaviors

Guilt can aid in personal growth.

“Think about why you felt guilty. Guilt usually stems from a failure to live up to someone else’s expectations,” says Wenner.

By writing out possible alternative behaviors and solutions, you may be able to cultivate beneficial skills and habits.

Expressing your guilt

Holding your guilt inside may compound feelings of anxiety and distress. Hong recommends speaking with a trusted family member or friend or working with journaling prompts to provide an outlet for your feelings.

Making amends

While it can be challenging to face perceived inadequacies head-on, sometimes making amends is all that’s needed.

“This can help you to resolve your feelings of guilt and move on,” Hong says.

Amends can be verbal, written, or done through action. Asking what you can do to “make things right” may also provide some insight.

Guilt indicates that you feel responsible for a negative outcome, whether accurate or not.

When you experience guilt, making amends and expressing your feelings can help ease the emotional burden.

If guilt is severely impacting your life or you always feel guilty, speaking with a mental health professional can help explore underlying factors.