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Signs of Guilt

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 23, 2020

What Is Guilt?

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.

Excessive guilt, however, is when guilt turns sour. It can lead to anxious obsessions, depressive tendencies, and physical symptoms if it’s not addressed. While most guilt is internal, it is often conditioned by external factors — which means with the right habits, it can be unlearned. To unlearn excessive guilt, you must know the signs. 

Guilt is intertwined with other disorders, and separating them can be a challenge. Understanding guilt’s role in disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder ( OCD) and depression, along with its physical symptoms, can help you notice its signs and learn how to overcome excessive guilt.

Signs of Guilt

Guilt’s relationship with OCD, anxiety, and depression often brings a host of symptoms. Some of the physical symptoms of guilt are problems with sleep, your stomach and digestion, and muscle tension. 

The social and emotional symptoms of guilt are often hidden in your everyday actions. You may find justification for certain thoughts, but guilt could very well be the cause. Some symptoms of guilt include:

  • Being sensitive to the effects of every action
  • Overwhelmed by possibly making the “wrong” decision
  • Low self-esteem
  • Putting others before yourself until it’s detrimental
  • Avoiding your full range of emotions

Guilt and OCD

Guilt’s relationship to other disorders is two-way. It can either cause a disorder or perpetuate one. OCD and depression are two significant others to guilt. OCD is all about recurring thoughts (obsessions) and actions (compulsions) that are uncontrollable. Guilt can act as a predecessor or an enabler for OCD. 

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If you feel guilty about a thought or action, it may stick to the forefront of your mind for a long time. This guilt may cause an obsession regarding the action you took or the thought that crossed your mind. Then, to make up for it, you start to make reparations to ease your guilt. However, the constant focus on the guilt and compulsion to make it right may never end.

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The alternative is an already embedded obsessive-compulsive tendency. For example, if you obsess about having a clean home and wash the dishes every night, you may be plagued with guilt if you forget to wash the dishes. This kind of guilt arises because you broke a code that dictates your beliefs. 

Guilt and Depression

As with guilt and OCD, guilt and depression feed off each other. Guilt enables depressive symptoms. It manifests as feeling bad about feeling depressed, and it compounds over time. Referred to as “meta-emotions,” this relationship isn’t always negative-negative. Sometimes, you may feel guilty because you feel good. 

Guilty emotions are typically irrational. You create these perceptions of your own failures that ferment in your mind. Your actions then reflect these emotions, which cause these perceptions to continue. 

The relationship between guilt and depression forms a swirling pool of negative thinking. They can often spiral out of control, feeding off each other until they are consuming. Spotting this parasitic relationship is the first step in breaking free from the cycle.

Dealing With Guilt

There’s no magical cure for excessive guilt. Overcoming it takes a lot of consistent emotional work, just as with any strong emotion. Frequent recognition and reflection are two touchstones for overcoming guilt. Ask yourself questions like, “What is making me feel guilty?” and “What actions or thoughts are occurring because of my guilt?”

Additionally, positive thinking and reinforcement can help overcome guilt. Changing the verbiage for your thoughts can alter your outlook on the source of your guilt. Change “I should” or “I could” to something more positive, like “I get to,” “I deserve,” or “I can” when applicable.

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Moreover, try making a list of what you feel guilty about. Using that list, consider the following:

  • Write a letter to someone who is the source of your guilt.
  • Volunteer to make amends toward something you feel guilty about.
  • Spin a guilty feeling into something positive by learning a lesson from it and how to move forward.

While everyone’s guilt is unique, you are not alone in feeling guilty. Speaking about your guilt can open the doors to forgiveness and healing. 

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American Psychological Association: “Guilt can do good."

Brain Structure and Function: "Abnormal processing of deontological guilt in obsessive-compulsive disorder."

GoodTherapy: "Guilt."

Greater Good Magazine: "How to Deal with Feeling Bad About Your Feelings."

Harley Therapy: "Is Guilt a Hidden Cause of Your Depression?"

Mental Illness Fellowship of Australia: "Understanding guilt."

National Institute of Mental Health: "Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder."

Transitions LifeCare: "Guilt and Regret."

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