Guilt: Our Most Implacable Judgment

In my work as a psychologist, I have often met people who, with different profiles, characters, difficulties, and contexts, agree to be affected by a feeling that causes them great discomfort and affect their decisions, relationships and experiences. It is a feeling that acts at different levels and that influences the earlier education in the family, social stereotypes and the psychological aspects of the person themselves. I’m talking about the guilt trip.

Guilt is a feeling as powerful as it is complex, because of its origin and also because of the multiplicity of psychological factors with which it relates and interacts.

Emotions play an adaptive role. When guilt acts in this way –that is, when guilt is adaptive– its function is to recognize errors and set in motion adjustment and repair behaviors. In this case, guilt helps us not to transgress certain norms and ethical codes, let’s say it ignites a “warning” that prevents us from making mistakes that could have serious consequences.

In this article, We will focus on maladaptive guilt by which its intensity and frequency is the source of emotional difficulties and disorders. In the rest of the content, unless I consider it necessary, I shall not insist on calling it the term.

When we talk about the feeling of guilt from Psychology, we have to talk about other very close terms and concepts: self-esteem, perfectionism, rumination, lack of self-confidence, self-censorship, fear, assertiveness, emotional regulation. And indeed, guilt is embedded in many of our emotional difficulties, and on many occasions, it is not easy to identify whether it is the origin or the consequence (on many occasions). Let’s try to figure out what guilt trip is and help understand what we can do to free ourselves from its most harmful effects.

Understanding the Guilt and Culpable

First of all, I want to differentiate the terms of guilt and culpable that are common and well defined in the field of jurisprudence, with the concept used in the field of emotions and psychology. In this article, I will talk about guilt in relation to our specialty and emotional health.

The feeling of guilt is, in general, accompanied by dysplastic emotions such as sadness, anguish, frustration, impotence or remorse, among others, and by repetitive and unproductive thoughts; and it works in a different way according to its temporal origin. So, we can feel guilt about:

  • Something we did or didn’t do (past)
  • Something we are not or are doing (present)
  • Something we’re going or not going to do (future)

Guilt is a mechanism in which, from an act or omission, we make a “moral judgment” of our conduct (even of our thoughts) and “rule” that we have made a mistake and should have a punishment.

In this definition I propose, there are a number of issues that are essential to understanding how the guilt mechanism works.

Guilt And Moral Conscience

Guilt And Moral Conscience

When we feel guilty about an act or omission:

  • We are our own “judges”.
  • We make the ”opinion ” of guilt.
  • And finally, we apply the “punishment”: unpleasant emotions.

The process of guilt is influenced by what we might call moral consciousness, a set of norms and values that we have built since childhood, to differentiate “good from evil”, and that allows us to set limits, to our behavior and to our thoughts.

The more rigid those rules are, the easier it will be to consider that we have overstepped the bounds and the more often the feeling of guilt will appearmore frequently.

I have to say that in this “process”, we have a merciless judge with a tendency to declare ourselves guilty, and that tends to impose punishment too rigorous. This judge, we are ourselves.

The concept of morality and ethics would give, not for one, but for many articles, in this, I want to refer to what is most related to the influence of moral consciousness on our emotions.

Morality, as a repertoire of norms and customs that establish one’s own societies, affects in a very important way the moral conscience of each individual, and it does so through education, family, school, media, television, movies. it is a complex system that establishes models and roles and that affects people in a different way, according to their own psychological aspects, context and their own biography.

How is guilt related to moral conscience, ethics, and moral norms?

The gender perspective, for example, is a key factor in this issue. Women have a tendency to feel guilty for issues that are determined by gender, so that psychological treatments to take into account these factors are more effective.

This set of rules is one of the mechanisms that societies have to guide our behavior and avoid exceeding predefined limits.

Each culture sets these limits in a different way and with a different level of demand. Even today, we are surprised by the rules of some cultures and societies.

The discomfort caused by guilt arises largely from the way we judge ourselves.

This mechanism has advantages and disadvantages:

  • The advantage of the rules is that it tells us what we have to do in each situation and tells us the most appropriate behavior. It allows us not to have to invest energy in making decisions and we will do what is expected of us or ourselves in general, if we comply with these rules, we will be accepted and we will have no reason to feel guilty.
  • The disadvantage of the rules is that they can collide with our wishes. In that case, when we break them, it will be our own perception of those rules and the meaning we give them, which will determine our sense of guilt.

We could say that guilt acts as a measure of control through emotional mechanisms by getting the person to act according to rules from self-censorship.

The Mechanism Of Guilt

The Mechanism Of Guilt

In the feeling of guilt, they intervene:

  1. Causal Act (real or imaginary)
  2. The negative perception and self-assessment of an act by the person (bad conscience).
  3. The negative emotion derived from guilt itself (remorse).

It is important to emphasize in this mechanism that our interpretation of action or omission, and the degree of importance, that is, the assessment, which we make of it, are decisive in the sense of guilt.

The judgments that we make about our actions and that provoke a feeling of guilt are ideas, and they do not have to be real.

The feeling of guilt arises from a subjective process, that is, it is determined by our interpretation and evaluation of the facts. I will give you some examples:

I have a partner, I share all my leisure time with her, we’re always together and we make plans the same way. One day I plan on making individual plans, dating friends without my partner. Feelings of guilt might appear if the interpretation I make of going out without my partner is: “The decline has already begun and before I never wanted to go out alone”  or “I am not a good companion ( or partner), I should not leave him abandoned”, etc.

In this example, our way of interpreting the action of going out without our partner will trigger our sense of guilt: we interpret that leaving without our partner is a sign of decline, or we conclude that if we leave our partner one day, we are “abandoning” her.

I am an attentive and careful mother, I pay a lot of attention to my son. But one day I have an accident or I’m sick, and logically I can’t take care of it. If the interpretation I make of this circumstance is: “I am no longer fulfilling my obligation” I have to heal immediately, something irreparable could happen if I am not aware”, etc. I will feel distressed, frustrated and… guilty.

Also in this example, our interpretation and assessment of this setback and its circumstances determine the feeling of guilt.

The feeling of maladaptive guilt appears when, with ourselves, we act as severe judges, valuing our actions in an inflexible manner and imparting excessive punishment, in the form of intense emotional discomfort.

Guilt, Shame, and Concern: Nuances In The Concept Of Guilt

Guilt, Shame, and Concern

According to famous psychologists, guilt and shame are associated but in different concepts. The guilt is felt before a concrete behavior (“I have done something wrong, I have made a mistake”), while shame implies global self-qualification (“I am a bad person, a bad partner, a bad worker, a bad father or a bad mother”).

Although Shame is more devastating, the guilt focuses its attention on one’s own person.

Similarly, another concept very close to guilt is a concern. We could say that guilt is a mechanism that is often in the past and the concern is projected in the future. We feel guilty about something we did, and we’re worried about something we’re going to do or could do.

In the short term, the person regrets things he did. But in the long term, when asked to look back, what is certain is that you regret more of the things that you did not do” (Thomas Gilovich, professor of Psychology, Cornell University, United States).

Psychological Aspects That Enhance or Generate The Feeling Of Guilt

So far we have described how the moral conscience and the mechanism of interpretation and evaluation of our acts or omissions determine the appearance of feelings of guilt. But psychological aspects, such as our thinking tendencies, personality, emotional difficulties, etc., are also decisive in this process.

Thus a person with a perfectionist tendency will feel guilty when he/she does not reach 10 on a test, even if his/her score has been 9, which is truly satisfying and that many people, contrary to making them feel guilty, would be filled with satisfaction.

These are some of the psychological aspects that intervene and influence the feeling of guilt:

  • Perfectionism
  • Self-esteem
  • Self-confidence
  • Emotional regulation
  • Rumination or maladaptive thoughts

There are a number of psychological factors that enhance a strong and frequent sense of guilt.

It is also important to note that the feeling of guilt is closely related to other emotional processes. This feeling appears at certain stages of mourning.

In the same way the feeling of guilt is very present in one of the most important conflicts in the couple, in which the “moral” norms acquire a great relevance, I am talking about guilt and infidelity.

How To Face The Feeling Of Guilt Trip: 7 Essential Tips

7 Essential Tips

In the feeling of guilt, it is very important to be aware that the protagonist is ours. We insist on something that psychologists mention a lot: thoughts and judgments are ideas, they are not realities.

The degree of flexibility and tolerance towards mistakes we make or could make, our capacity for acceptance, our degree of empathy, are factors that adjust our interpretations and assessments, and free us from guilt.

The key is a responsibility to the feeling of guilt. That means taking responsibility for our actions, accepting our limits and circumstances that we cannot control, learning from experiences and changing what is convenient, for us and for those around us. In short, be more adaptive.

The 7 keys that will change the way you feel the emotion that we call ‘’guilt’’

These are our 7 Essential Tips to free yourself from guilt:

  1. Identify the behavior that causes guilt. Think about what makes you feel guilty so you can detect it.
  2. Accepts that mistakes are part of the person, they are the key to learning and change, and not a sign of clumsiness or failure.
  3. Thinks that one cannot be perfect in compliance, especially when we tend to demand more than we can give.
  4. Express verbally how you feel, your repentance before the mistake made.
  5. Ask for forgiveness for causing harm. Not only show your repentance, but also let it be known that you seek forgiveness for the damage done.
  6. Repair the damage. Initiate behaviors to make the person involved aware that not only do you repent and ask for forgiveness but also that you will not repeat the damage.
  7. Take It replaces guilt with responsibility.

Guilt vs. Responsibility

Although, as We commented at the beginning of the article, guilt, like the rest of the emotions fulfills an adaptive function, in this article We have focused on the guilt that manifests itself intensely, frequently and that affects our lives; This is the maladaptive guilt. The following table proposes to replace the maladaptive guilt that generates anguish, blocks us and it does not facilitate change.

Do you know the difference between guilt and responsibility?

It is general, it globalizes you as a personIt is particular, it facilitates the concretion. You are responsible for something concrete
It is immovable, unchangeableFacilitate the action
Look what I’ve done, as it occurs to me, I’m useless, I do everything wrong, I’m uselessWow, I had a mistake and look what happened. At stations you have to be very careful because if you’re careless, they can steal you
Now that I’m going to do this, I think it’s stupid. I can’t even take care of a suitcase.I’m going to report it to the police, and I’ll see how I resolve this to leave as soon as possible


We have dealt with one of the important topics in Psychology in this article. The feeling of guilt trip limits and conditions us; it generates emotions that keep us in inaction and blockade; it makes it difficult to move towards our goals and aspirations; and it damages our social, affective and family relations.

But there is very good news. The guilt is a mechanism that depends on psychological aspects on which we can act. We can learn and improve resources and capacities that will definitely free us from the maladaptive guilt and instead of making us responsible people.


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