by Andrea M. Darcy
Guilt, according to evolutionary psychology, was the brain’s way of making sure we didn’t veer into behaviour that would leave us ostracised from the tribe.
And even nowadays a little guilt is a good thing. Not having any is a worrying sign of sociopathy, or narcissistic personality disorder.
But what if you feel guilty all the time?
When “I feel guilty!” is out of control
A ‘guilt complex’ (more correctly referred to as ‘false guilt’) ‘happens when we feel at blame even when we aren’t sure we did anything wrong.
It looks like:
- constantly worrying you’ve upset others
- always analysing if you could have done things better
- feeling guilty for things you didn’t even actually do
- or for simply having bad thoughts
- taking responsibility if others are in a bad mood
- using the terms ‘should have’ and ‘could have’ often
- letting one small thing that went wrong turn into a day of intense self-criticism
- a constant belief that if things are not going well, it’s down to something you must have said or done
- blaming others or practising psychological projection (a defence mechanism against guilt)
- feeling bad not just for what you might have done, but for who you are.
But why do I feel guilty all the time?
Cognitive therapy sees guilt as arising from a set of negative core beliefs. These beliefs lead us to mistakenly see everything through the lens of, “I cause people to suffer’.
How do you get such negative ideas of yourself and the world? Generally we develop our belief system as a child.
1. Mimicking guilt.
It might be that you learned guilt by mimicking. You saw the example set by adults around you and followed it. For example, you had a parent who always wailed that things were his or her fault, and learned that being guilty is how you gain attention from others. Or you grew up in a very Christian community, where feeling guilty might be something you learned gave you worth.
2. Guilt as a reaction.
But a guilt complex also arises as a reaction to the behaviour of parents and caregivers.
This can be reinforced by casual comments from the parent. This can look like, ‘why do you have to drive me crazy’, ‘why can’t you be like your brother/sister’. Or ‘why did I ever decide to be a parent’.
Parents can manipulate a child into a guilt-ridden mindset even if their intention is to be ‘good parents’. This comes from the sort of caregiving where a parent or guardian is unable to accept the child fully as they are.
They will encourage the child to be ‘well-behaved’ in order to ‘earn’ affection or attention. And what happens when the then child feels any ‘not perfect’ things? Sadness or anger, for example? The child feels racked with guilt. Worse, he or she shoves their real self so deep inside that they grow up as adults who lack boundaries or have identity issues.
3. Guilt as a response to trauma.
Sometimes the only way a child’s mind can process a terrible trauma is to decide they somehow caused it. Meaning any kind of trauma can leave a child to grow up into an adult who constantly feels guilt.
Is my guilt really a big deal?
Guilt has been linked by studies to clinical depression.
It was found that those who experienced childhood guilt had lower volumes in the area of the brain involved with self-perception. This means lower self-esteem, one of the main triggers of depression. (Read more in our connected article, Guilt and Depression).
Guilt is also a contributing factor to:
And guilt often comes hand-in-hand with hidden layers of shame, an emotion that can rule our days.
What can I do if I suffer from constant feelings of guilt?
Constant guilt can be so deeply entrenched in the way you see yourself, and in a difficult childhood, that it’s extremely hard to untangle things alone.
Working with a counsellor or psychotherapist is recommended. They can help you identify just how your guilt is running your life, what its roots are, and how you can start to operate from a clearer perspective.
All talk therapies can help with deep seated feelings of guilt and shame, including the popular cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
Ready to stop your guilt from controlling your life? We offer expert talk therapists in three London locations to suit your needs. Not in London? Visit our sister site harleytherapy.com to book Skype therapy and phone counselling.
Still have a question about why you feel guilty all the time? Post below.
Andrea M. Darcy is a professional mental health writer trained in person-centred counselling, and is the lead writer of this site.