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Guilt and mental health

Updated: Nov 9, 2021

Guilt is difficult to pin down, but we all feel it. You may feel guilty for a thought you’ve had or something you’ve done. You may also feel guilty that your thoughts and actions don’t coincide with your culture, your family, or your beliefs. While your associations with guilt may be negative, it does have a positive function. Oftentimes, guilt is meant to help you make a morally upright decision. If your deeds provoke negative outcomes or emotions, guilt will later inform you that it was the wrong thing to do, and doing it again will make you feel guilty. You will often see guilt and shame in the same conversation because they help you make moral decisions.

The psychological effects of guilt can be beneficial when they inspire a person to make changes in their behavior. But at other times they can cause distress. Research has shown that guilt and depression are often linked. Research also suggests that anxiety, as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), can be related to feelings of guilt or shame. When a person can’t fix a mistake, guilt can persist until they have the chance to make amends. Guilt resulting from an action that can’t be repaired can have a lasting, negative impact on life. Therapy can often help a person address these emotions and reframe their feelings about what happened.

Another effect of guilt is a guilt complex. A guilt complex refers to a persistent belief that you have done something wrong or that you will do something wrong. In addition to constant feelings of guilt and worry, a guilt complex can also lead to feelings of shame and anxiety. While a guilt complex may be the result of real harm that a person may have caused, it can also center on imagined or perceived guilt. People may think that they have done something wrong, even though they haven't. In other cases, they may overestimate their own role in a situation, believing that their own minor mistakes had a much more serious impact than they really did.

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