Understanding the Psychology of Guilt
Most people have, at some point in their life, been conditioned (learned) to feel guilty. This guilt usually came from family, friends, society and/or religion who, consciously or unconsciously, taught us to feel guilty for thinking or acting in a certain way.
Take childhood for example. As children we were constantly reminded of our bad behavior, and when we did something wrong, we were told by our parents or teachers how “disappointed” they were in us. The aim of this externally imposed guilt was to change your behavior by making you feel bad for what you did.
Once you were made to feel guilty enough, you then did what your parent or teacher asked of you so that you could escape from that guilt and win back their approval. Guilt is therefore an extremely powerful tool which can be used to manipulate someone’s behavior, and is something that is strongly interlinked with the need for external approval.
In this article on guilt, we are going to be looking at both of these topics in detail so that you can start living your life the way you want to live it, without being manipulated by externally imposed guilt.
So let’s start by looking at some of the reasons why guilt works, and then later, the different types of guilt that people commonly experience.
Why Guilt Works
The main reason why guilt works comes down to simple psychology and the conditioning we received as children.
Most children were taught to seek approval from their parents for the things they said or did. When we did something “good” our parents gave us praise and acceptance, when we did something “bad” this praise was withheld and replaced with disapproval.
Since virtually all children strongly desire to receive love and acceptance from their parents, the need for parental approval is something that children will work very hard to get. The result of this however, is that over time we eventually become conditioned to seek approval from others for the things we say and do.
This then causes us to feel that in order to receive approval from others, we must do things others approve of so that they can approve of us.
For example, have you have ever bought something such as an item of clothing, whilst at the same time thinking about what others would think if they saw you in it/with it? If so, then your behavior (what you decided to purchase) was influenced by your need for external approval.
Activating the need for external approval
When you do or say something which others regard as being unacceptable or wrong, you activate a deeply ingrained need for external approval which you were taught to seek as a child.
Even though the person who has disapproved of your actions may not be your parent, the simple act of receiving disapproval automatically triggers a desire to “win” back that approval.
Therefore, in order to avoid receiving disapproval, most of us (through our childhood conditioning) will go along with whatever is popular or commonplace. For example, we may have the similar opinions as our friends, have similar tastes in fashion and even behave in similar ways.
Who you choose to conform to, is all dependent on who you regard as being important in your life. Usually these will be your family, close friends, actors, singers, athletes or work colleagues, groups which are commonly referred to as “reference groups”.
In order to be accepted by them, you essentially become them by doing the things which you know they will accept and approve of.
The feeling of disapproval
Guilt is the uncomfortable feeling that you experience when you do something you know will result in disapproval from those who are important to you. It is a by-product of your actions conflicting with either your own or an externally imposed moral code.
For example, you don’t want to eat cake because it will make you look fat, and if you look fat, then other people won’t find you very attractive (external code). However, suppose you choose to eat the cake anyway because you like eating cake (internal code), but afer finishing it, you feel guilty for doing so.
In this example, your actions (eating the cake) conflicted with an externally imposed moral code. That being, if you eat cake it will make you fat which means that other people will not find you attractive.
The result of this conflict results in feelings of guilt, because you did something which you thought would cause other people to disapprove of you (i.e. to not find you attractive).
Although this guilt may stop you from eating another piece of cake in the short-term, it is very unlikely to stop you from eating more cake in the future. I will expand upon why this is later on in this article.
So as you can see, guilt can be a very effective means of influencing someone’s behavior as it activates our natural childhood need to be approved by others. If we want someone’s approval badly enough, we will change the way we look, act and even think!
Guilt serves as the motivator which “encourages” us to change our behavior by activating another human tendency, the desire to avoid pain and experience pleasure. By conforming to others, we can avoid the pain that guilt causes us.
Does feeling guilty mean you care?
Compounding the influence of guilt, is the association between guilt and caring. Most people have been taught that feeling guilty about something shows you care about it, and that not feeling guilty means you don’t, which then makes you a “bad person”.
Of course, the underlying implication behind this logic is that in order to become a “good person” you must show that you care by feeling guilty, and then, proving it by conforming to the needs and wishes of those around you.
However, the reality is that not feeling guilty about something doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t care about it, as you are simply choosing to live your life by your own moral code (what you believe to be good and right) rather than by an externally imposed moral code (what society, friends & family believe is good and right).
Successfully overcoming guilt therefore starts with standing up for your beliefs, wants and needs, without being influenced by what other people think. If you can’t stand up for what you believe in, you will always be vulnerable to externally imposed guilt from the people around you.
The Effects of Guilty Feelings
The things you do today and the way you live your life, can broadly be divided into either “good” or “bad”. When you do good things you receive approval and when you do bad things you receive disapproval. Most guilt therefore tends to come as a result of doing “bad things” or not doing “good things”.
But have you ever stopped to think about who decides upon these labels? Who decides what is good and what is bad? And are these labels really applicable to you and what you stand for and believe in? Whilst these labels may seem innocent enough, they are in fact one of the major causes of inappropriate guilt.
This term describes something which you regard as being good or bad, but conflicts with an externally imposed label that tells you the opposite. The result of this internal conflict manifests itself as inappropriate guilt, as you are torn between two oppositional labels.
Is it good or is it bad?
Sexual guilt provides a good example of how oppositional labels can result in feelings of guilt, and is something which is commonly experienced by teenagers (especially when homosexuality is involved).
Teens who find themselves attracted, or sexually curious, to members of the same-sex, often experience intense amounts of guilt for having particular thoughts and feelings.
On the one hand, they have their own moral code which tells them that there is nothing wrong with being attracted to the same-sex and that how they choose to live their life is entirely up to them.
But conflicting with this belief is the externally imposed label that homosexuality is bad and therefore, those who choose to engage in such activities are also bad.
This label may come from society, friends and/or family and tells them that what they believe in is wrong and so they should feel guilty about it. As a result of these conflicting oppositional labels, people can feel guilty simply for trying to live their life the way they want to live it.
When this guilt occurs, it may eventually lead to feelings of anxiety and depression as they struggle to cope with how they feel and how society tells them they should feel.
Anxiety & depression
The most common result of guilt is anxiety and depression. In an attempt to escape these negative emotions, the guilty person will often choose to deny, disown or repress their guilt by trying to forget about the event/action/thought that caused their guilt to occur in the first place.
So for example, rather than a homosexual expressing homosexuality, they would express heterosexuality by pretending to themselves, and to others, that they are attracted to members of the opposite sex.
But because this person is not expressing their true self and living their life based upon an externally imposed label, they are never likely to feel fully satisfied or truly happy with their life.
In cases where a person is unable to deny, disown or repress their guilt to a manageable level, the depression and anxiety that they experience may be so severe that they choose to escape it through suicide.
Another possible outcome of guilt is acceptance, whereby the person is able to accept what they have done and either forgive themselves for their past actions, or decide that they have done nothing wrong which they need to feel guilty about.
In other words, by accepting their thoughts, feelings and actions they also accept themselves, and by doing so, become free to express the person who they really are.
Locked in the past
Although there are many more different outcomes of guilt, in general, guilt is either something which you choose to experience or choose not to experience. By choosing to experience guilt you choose to focus on the past, which then prevents you from living your life to its fullest potential.
By choosing not to experience guilt however, you choose to focus on the future and are therefore able to obtain the maximum enjoyment out of life through the expression of your true self.
Remember, you can never be truly happy by pretending to be someone else or by denying who you really are. The person who knows you best is not society, not your friends and not your family. It is you and only you.
This is why you should live by your own labels. Know your own moral code, know what you think is good or bad and then live your life according to that code. The moment you start trying to live under externally imposed labels, is the moment that you will experience conflict within you.
This is because we all have different moral codes that are individually unique to us, and so therefore, different codes will eventually start to conflict with each other.
In order to live by your moral code you must shed your need for external approval, as whenever you seek approval from someone, you are choosing to live by what they see as being good or bad.
As long as this occurs, you are likely to experience frequent bouts of guilt and the accompanying anxiety and/or depression that it brings.
Parent & Child Guilt
The first form of guilt that most people experience is parent-to-child guilt. If you did not do something that your parents approved of, then you were told that you were a “bad boy” or a “bad girl”.
The underlying implication of these expressions is that you are bad, rather than your actions being bad. Later in life, this may then result in an adult with low self-esteem and a strong desire to please others, often doing so at the expense of their own wants and needs.
For example, if you do something which your parents disapprove of, they may respond by saying things like “What would the neighbours think?“, “You are an embarrassment!” or “I am so disappointed in you“.
All of these phrases are designed to make you feel guilty, and by feeling guilty, you are then motivated to change your behavior so that you can please your parents and fulfill their expectations.
If this becomes a repeated occurrence where the child is constantly made to feel guilty for all the “wrong” things they do, then by the time they reach adulthood they will have been conditioned to put the needs of others ahead of their own.
This can be seen in people who will do everything someone asks of them and is rarely able to say no. Their underlying fear is that if they don’t do what other people want or ask of them, that they will then not be liked by that person.
A term to describe this type of personality is the “people pleaser”. Such people are so concerned with making other people like them, that they are never really able to enjoy their own life, because most of the time, they are focused on pleasing others.
Pleasing others is very important to the people pleaser, because they use the approval they receive (from pleasing others) as a means of self validation.
In other words, their sense of self-identity and self-esteem is largely dependant upon the approval they receive from others. Without it, they feel incomplete, rejected and inadequate.
The opposite of parent-child guilt can be seen with child-parent guilt, whereby the child uses some form of manipulation in order to get what they want from their parents.
Most commonly, this occurs as a temper tantrum where the child will scream or cry until their parent gives them what they want. Since most parents want to be viewed as “good” by their children, it is not uncommon for a parent to try to keep their child happy by complying with their wishes.
Guilt can be created by the child using phrases such as “You don’t really love me, otherwise you would…“, “My friend’s parents got it for him, so why won’t you!?” or “You never give me anything I want, I hate you!”.
Where does the child learn this behavior from? In most cases, it is from the parents who used a similar form of manipulation on the child.
Even though the child may not fully understand why this method works, they quickly learn that it can be a very effective way of getting what they want. However, the danger in fulfilling every request that a child makes is that they may turn into a “spoiled brat”.
A spoiled brat is someone who is used to getting their own way by manipulating others with emotions and will usually become extremely upset if they don’t get what they want when they want it.
When the spoiled brat leaves home, they are likely to experience much frustration when they realize that in the real world not everyone is as eager to comply with their wishes as their parents were.
When this occurs, the spoiled brat will often resort to more advanced forms of emotional manipulation to get what they want. In many cases, sex/sexuality will be used.
Guilt From Society & Religion
Guilt from society first begins at school when children are made to feel guilty by their teacher for doing something wrong. Although this can be an effective method for controlling a child’s behavior, it does not address the root cause of the problem and so offers little long-term benefit.
A good example of this can be found in prison. When a criminal is sent to prison, they are given a set amount of time in which they are to be confined in a cell as punishment.
During this time, the prisoner is meant to reflect upon the wrongs that they have done (feel guilty), so that when they leave prison, they will not commit the same act again.
But anyone who has worked in a prison before will tell you that a large percentage of inmates are repeat offenders. They are released, but then later come back after committing another crime.
So for these people, using guilt as punishment results in no long-term beneficial changes on their behavior. The main reason for this, as stated before, is that the underlying cause of the problem was never addressed.
It would be far more effective for example, to work on developing a person’s level of self-esteem and examining the environmental influences which caused them to turn to crime.
Later in life, guilt from society comes from the people who you associate with on a daily basis. Usually, these people are your friends and coworkers. For example, many teenagers participate in activities which they would not normally do. However, because of their desire to “fit in” with the crowd, they do what their friends do.
If their actions conflict with what they regard as being “good” or “bad” they will experience guilt, and as you already know, constantly experiencing guilt ultimately leads to a lack of self acceptance and a repression of your true self.
Regardless of what religion you follow, all religions have a certain moral code which you are supposed to live by. If you do not adhere to those morals, you are automatically labelled as a sinner who should feel guilty for what they have done.
The trouble with this, is that I don’t see all sin as being bad and neither do I agree with being told what I should or shouldn’t experience in life. I know from past experience for example, that the best way to grow and develop as a person is to learn from the mistakes you make in your life.
Religion however, tells me that when I do something that is not within its moral code, that I am a bad person, I have sinned and should feel guilty about it. But how does this help me to grow and develop as a person?
Feeling guilty about something only keeps you focused in the past, and while it may result in short-term behavioral changes, it very rarely has any long-term beneficial effects. Guilt does not explain to me why I may have done something, nor does it teach me lessons from that experience.
For example, the reason I may have engaged in a “sinful activity”, was because at the time, my current level of awareness (my current beliefs and values) lead me to believe that it was something good or something that I was curious about. So I did it.
Should I now feel guilty about this because I have done something which religion has told me I should not do? Or should I have the freedom to act upon my own thoughts and learn through experience what life has to offer?
I am certainly not suggesting that you ignore everything your religion teaches you, but the point I am making is that when you limit what you do, or allow others to limit you, you limit what you experience in your life which then limits how much you grow and develop as a person.
So use religion to guide you, but make up your own mind about things and don’t feel guilty for wanting to express your true self. Instead, learn from your past experiences and you will find that you will grow into a much more confident and self accepting person.
Guilt in Love & Relationships
“If you loved me you would…” are some of the most guilt producing words that can be used in a relationship to manipulate the other partner. The underlying implication is that if you don’t do what I ask, then you don’t really care about me and so you should feel guilty.
Since as children we have been conditioned to show that we care, phrases such as this can easily manipulate someone by making them feel guilty for not doing what you want. This could also be considered a form of “emotional blackmail”, since emotions are being used to manipulate another person’s actions.
Guilt can also be used retroactively as a form of punishment. For example, phrases such as “Remember the time when you…” are used as a reminder of the bad things a person may have done in the past and how other people were negatively affected by those actions.
Therefore, in a relationship, guilt can be a very powerful tool for manipulating someone’s behavior as both partners within that relationship already strongly desire each others approval. When this approval is taken away and replaced with disapproval, a person will work very hard to get it back and “make up” for the “wrong” they did.
People who manipulate others by creating guilt through love also tend to emotionally manipulate individuals with whom they have no sexual relations with. For example, friends can fall victim to their manipulation through the various “guilt trips” that are thrown at them.
A guilt trip is just another method of using guilt as a form of retroactive punishment. The person is reminded of something bad they have done in the past, made to feel guilty about it and then given an option to escape that guilt. This option will depend on what the other person wants them to do.
However, whilst using guilt through love can be very effective in manipulating someone’s behavior, its effectiveness tends to be limited to close relationships where there is a strong bond between two individuals. For example, child-parent, parent-child, best friend-best friend, romantic relationship etc… The reasons for this are obvious.
Within such relationships each member desires the approval of the other, and so therefore, can be easily manipulated if that approval is withheld. In relationships where there is not a strong bond, such as during a meeting between two strangers, then guilt through love tends to be far less effective at manipulation.
For someone who is used to manipulating others through this method, they may find that they are unable to get what they want unless they know a person well. There is one important exception to this rule though. Extremely good-looking people can manipulate others more easily than unattractive people, especially if someone is already attracted to them.
Attractiveness and approval seeking
Once you are attracted to someone, you will automatically try to win their approval by doing things to impress them. For example, a man who finds a woman very attractive will naturally try to impress her by being nice and doing things for her.
Unfortunately, most men will try too hard to impress a woman, which then results in the opposite effect to what he originally intended. By trying too hard to win someone’s approval, you display submissive behavior which then gives all your power to the other person.
People who give away all their power are usually taken advantage of, not appreciated for what they do and easily manipulated. For example, a woman realizes that a man has “fallen” for her. So she decides to take advantage of the situation by getting him to drive her places and buy her things.
So when it comes to dealing with women, or men, just remember that sexual attraction is often counterintuitive. This means that what you expect to happen as a result of your actions, is often the opposite to what actually does happen.
Make people want your approval
Just so you know, if you want someone to be strongly attracted to you, then you must make them want to receive your approval. You do this through “qualifying” and “disqualifying” people (applying conditions + disapproval) and then making them prove to you that they are a “good” person.
Be careful how you do this though, as inappropriate disapproval will have the opposite effect. A good example of appropriate disapproval would be something like, “Yeah, you’re cute, but I only date blondes”. Say this to a brunette who is attracted to you and she will work extra hard to win over your approval and “prove” herself to you.
The above phrase first gives approval (Yeah, you’re cute…) which gives power to the other person and then gives disapproval (…but I only date blondes) which takes the power away. The result is a “power vacuum” which automatically triggers a desire to win back the lost approval. This is why this technique is so effective in dating.
Note: This technique tends to be most effective on highly attractive people because they are used to receiving approval from others. When they do not receive approval, they will usually work very hard to get it.
Sexual guilt is most commonly the result of religious beliefs or teachings. Depending on your religion, you may have been told what forms of sex are “good” or “bad” in a relationship and when you are able to have sex.
For example, most religions classify homosexual relationships as bad or “sinful”. Therefore, a homosexual person who is in a relationship with someone, and is also religious, is likely to feel guilty and/or ashamed about their sexuality.
However, homosexuals should not feel any guiltier than heterosexuals as they are simply living by what they regard to be good or bad (their own moral code). Once you start letting outside authority figures such as religion do this for you, you make yourself vulnerable to experiencing guilt whenever you don’t go along with the “party line”.
Regardless of your sexual orientation, when it comes to sexual partners there is an interesting oppositional divide between the different sexes and the labels they use. Lets explore these now.
For most men, sex with as many people as possible is labelled as being good. Any man who sleeps with lots of women for example, is generally viewed by other males as being a high status dominant alpha man.
Since more sex and relationships equals good for the male (label), men will willingly engage in sexual activities with women and openly talk (sometimes boast) about the women they have, or are, sleeping with. As a result, most men do not feel guilty about having sex with women.
For those males who do feel guilty about sex, it is generally due to religious beliefs or beliefs imposed upon them by their parents. In order to overcome this guilt, they must decide whose moral code they wish to live by and then change their actions according to that code so that they can form guilt free relationships.
If we examine the socially imposed label on women, we see an opposite message. Women who sleep with lots of men or who have lots of relationships with men equals bad, and the more men they sleep with, the “badder” they are.
As a result of this label, most women tend to be more cautious about having a relationship and sex with another man, and when they do have sex, they will not boast about their “conquests” to their friends. Of course, they may talk about sex, but will generally do so in a much more conservative manner than males.
Number of sexual relationships
If a woman is asked how many men she has slept with, she will usually give a number that is far lower than the actual amount. This can be compared to the male, who will usually give a number that is far greater than the actual amount.
If you have seen the film “American Pie“, then you know what I’m talking about. When a women gives a number multiple it by three. When a man gives a number, divide it by three!
The result of the sexual label applied to women, is that they are far more likely than men to experience sexual guilt when they are in a relationship with someone.
This is simply because their actions are conflicting with an externally imposed societal label, which then results in guilt. The amount of guilt that a women experiences, is largely dependant upon her own moral code.
For example, if a woman believes that she can have sex with whomever she wants, but her religion tells her she should not have sex until she is in a committed relationship (such as marriage), she is likely to experience less guilt after having sex than if she also believed that she should not have sex until she is married.
In the latter example, her actions broke both her own moral code and the moral code imposed upon her by society, thereby resulting in the most severe form of guilt. This guilt may then cause her to question the relationship she is in or even end that relationship completely.
You know when you have broken both moral codes because you will probably say or think something like “Oh my God! I can’t believe I did that!” and then experience deep remorse afterwards.
Overcoming Shame and Guilt
If you are like most people, at some point in your life you have probably felt guilty about something. You may even be feeling guilty right now?
Guilt can range from small things like feeling guilty for having a bite of chocolate on your diet. Or more serious things, such as harming someone or committing a crime. But what exactly is guilt and how do you get rid of it?
The simplest way to describe guilt would be that you blame yourself for a fault, or mistake, which you made in the past and that you now regret.
You know that what you did was wrong, when at the time, it was possible for you to do otherwise. You may not have felt guilty at the time, but looking back you now wish you had done something else.
Undeserved guilty feelings
With guilt always comes the implication of choice and responsibility, whether or not you were consciously aware of it at the time. For this reason, it is important to be clear what was within your power and what was not. Otherwise, you run of the risk of accepting undeserved guilt which ultimately will damage your self-esteem.
For example, if something bad happened to a person who you loved or cared about, it is a natural and usually irrational reaction to think that somehow you could have prevented the event from occurring.
This guilt may be fueled by actions taken, or not taken, before the incident occurred. So the person becomes consumed with thoughts about what they could have done differently which may have prevented the incident from occurring.
However, in most of these cases, there was little that could have been done to prevent the incident from occurring. So no true responsibility should be accepted for it. When there is no responsibility, there can be no reasonable need to blame oneself for what occurred.
This does not mean that the person will not feel any regret or sadness. But it does mean that when there was nothing you could have done to stop it, guilt is not something that you should feel.
In some instances of course, you may have to take responsibility and accept that your actions most likely lead to the occurrence of the event. In these cases, guilt is appropriate and must be accepted.
In order to overcome this guilt, you should perform each of the five steps listed below.
- Face and accept the full reality of what you have done, without disowning or avoiding it.
- Understand why you did what you did.
- If other people are involved, tell them that you understand the harm you have caused them and the consequences of your actions.
- Take any and all actions available to minimize or resolve the harm you have caused.
- Make a commitment to yourself to behave differently in the future.
These five steps are essential in resolving guilt. If you fail to complete these steps, you may continue to feel guilty about something and spend many years dealing with the guilt.
People have even been known to have psychotherapy to deal with their guilt. But unless they follow these five steps, all the talks and worksheets they take on overcoming guilt will never truly release it from them.
They will know that what they have done is wrong, but if they choose to ignore or disown their guilt, then ultimately, it will only end up creating an internal conflict within them. This may then lead to both physical and mental symptoms of guilt, to the extent where the guilt becomes so unbearable that they resort to suicide.
Guilt and shame
I once saw a TV program about white men in South Africa who used to torture, beat and sometimes even kill other black men. Even though at the time the white leadership allowed and encouraged this behavior, when white rule ended, these men became consumed with enormous guilt and shame regarding their actions.
The program showed how these men went back to the families of the men who they had either tortured or killed and apologized to them for what they had done.
Even though some of these men had plates smashed in their face by the families they were apologizing to, or were attack in some other way, afterwards, they were visibly pleased that they had gone back to those families. Like a weight had been lifted from their shoulders.
I don’t know whether you could say these men were guilt free after committing such horrendous crimes, but it did seem to be a big step for them in dealing with the guilt and shame that they felt.
So in these cases, even though these white men had killed some of the black families sons, they still did whatever they could to relieve their guilt. This does not mean to say that what they did was right, or justifiable, but from their perspective, it was the only way that they could relieve the incredible guilt and shame they felt.
What we learn from such people is that unless guilt is specifically addressed and then action taken to resolve it, you will most likely feel guilty for the rest of your life and be tormented by it.
This is why it is important to understand the psychology of guilt, so you that know when guilt is appropriate, when it is not and how to resolve it. Only then will you be able to successfully overcome and release the guilt you feel by confronting it head on.
Reviewed – 1st April 2016