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 sign of sociopathy or narcissistic personality disorder.
But what if you feel guilt all the time? This sort of ‘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, somehow it’s down to something you must have said or done
- blaming others or practising psychological projection (a defence mechanism against guilt)
- spiralling quickly from guilt into shame (feeling not just for what we might have done, but for who we are).
But why do I feel guilty all the time?
Freud felt that guilt arose from the ‘Oedipal stage’ of psychosexual development – in other words, we all feel secretly guilty as we are attracted to our opposite-sex parent. Thankfully psychology has moved on from this limited view.
The modern cognitive therapy approach sees guilt as deriving from a set of negative core beliefs you have that lead you to inaccurately see life through the lens of, “I cause people to suffer’. How do you get such negative ideas of yourself and the world? You are ‘conditioned’ – i.e., you learn them as a child.
Guilt can be a behaviour you learn from mimicking – you saw the example set by adults around you and followed it. For example, if you grew up in a religious environment, feeling guilty might actually have been something that made you socially acceptable. Or, if you had a parent who always wailed that things were his or her fault, you might have been programmed with the idea that being guilty is how you gain attention from others, and that that it shows you ‘care’ about others.
But a guilt complex also derives as a reaction to the behaviour of parents and caregivers, or in response to a traumatic event where the only way your child’s mind could process the occurrence was to decide you somehow caused it.
Guilt as a reaction
As a child our mind can not see the big picture we gain by adulthood. So if a parent is unwell – mentally unstable, depressed, an addict, violent – a child can often decide that somehow they are the cause of the problem.
This kind of thinking can be reinforced by casual comments from the parent such as ‘why do you have to drive me crazy’, ‘why can’t you be like your brother/sister’, ‘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 (often as they themselves have too many unresolved issues to love unconditionally). They will encourage the child to be ‘well-behaved’ in order to ‘earn’ affection or attention. Or they will expect the child to be in tune with their whims at any given moment. The child becomes codependent, basing their personality and actions around the parent’s needs.
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.
Guilt as a response to trauma
Any kind of trauma can leave a child to grow up into an adult who constantly feels guilt. This can include:
Again, a child can often only comprehend what is happening around by thinking it is somehow their doing. So the sexually abused child, for example, grows up wracked with shame, thinking somehow it was her fault, until she learns through therapy or self-help that it was not.
Is my guilt really a big deal?
Guilt has been linked by studies to clinical depression. In some ways it needs no explanation – it’s hard to feel good if you are constantly worried you are ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’.
It was found in studies 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?
Guilt can be so deeply entrenched in the way you see yourself and others 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. Shorter term therapies to especially consider include:
And longer term therapies that can help you alleviate longstanding feelings of guilt are:
All these forms of therapy are offered at Harley Therapy and available in three London locations to suit your needs. Not in the UK? We now offer Skype therapy worldwide.
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