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What Is Guilt?

Guilt is the perception that we have done something morally, legally, or ethically wrong.

Many of us perceive ourself as guilty for having done or even thought of something, that violates externally imposed standards.

There are no manuals for emotions, so we are left looking to those around us for guidance. We may have been taught about the tasks of work and life, but many people are not prepared for the task of managing their emotions. We may have even been kept at a disadvantage by our family, who didn’t have much preparation themselves. We may then pass on this legacy of emotional illiteracy to our children. These children are made to perceive guilt where guilt does not exist.

Some of us have the tendency to assume excessive responsibility for others problems. We make frequent sacrifices in an attempt to help others overcome adversity. Some who are excessively responsible feel guilty and deserving only of pain and punishment. They strive for others approval to combat inescapable judgements from others. They are wrought with guilt for others struggles. This guilt fuels critical thoughts about themselves when they fail to prevent others problems, but they prefer this to the pain of being judged by others.

Those who feel excessive guilt may have been cast as a caregiver who was in charge of pleasing others. This is a role that was dictated by their parents and siblings, who have made them out to be responsible for all the ills in the family. As children, their parents may have said to them, “Look at what you made your sister do,” and they needs to get on the “team”. 

Another may have a sibling who gets all the credit, while they get all the blame when things go wrong. Now as an adult, when there is a disaster, such as a job loss, a divorce, or a death, they are predisposed to assume blame (“If only I’d done more, this wouldn’t have happened,”) and feel angry with themselves for not preventing it.

We are not required to assume the fault and guilt of others. Mistakes are not crimes and we are not guilty. We may be unhealthy in some ways, but we are not bad.  We are not wrong.  Some people are  mistaken, uncoordinated, and poorly informed.  If these conditions are not crimes, what are they?  They are human imperfections. To be human is to be imperfect, to be imperfect means we make mistakes and to make mistakes means we have regrets. 

Regret is the wish that things were other than they are. But they aren’t. This thing happened, and it’s regrettable. We can choose to replace our fictitious guilt with the regret that we aren’t perfect, which only confirms our humanity.

We can remind ourself that imperfect judgment, means making a mistake, which is not the end of the world. We have made many good decisions and have made mistakes before. We are more than the sum of our success and mistakes. Our performance will vary from day to day, hour to hour and we can separate our performance from who we are as a person.

We are not worthless even if we make mistakes. Doing badly never makes us a bad person — only imperfect. We have a right to be wrong. By having tolerance for our flaws and imperfections, we can come to accept that we are unconditionally lovable in spite of them. Our regrets and mistakes do not define us or make us less lovable people.

What Is Guilt?

Aaron Karmin


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APA Reference
Karmin, A. (2018). What Is Guilt?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 19, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/anger/2018/04/what-is-guilt/

 

Last updated: 2 May 2018
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 2 May 2018
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.