Experiencing guilt is a part of being human. Guilt is the feeling that we have acted against our personal standards or values in some way. We tend to feel guilty if we’ve hurt someone or broken a rule. Guilt can be an uncomfortable emotion to experience but it has an important role to play in our lives and it can be very useful. But what exactly is the purpose of this emotion? And what can we do if we find ourselves stuck with a sense of guilt that we can’t let go?

The Purpose of Feeling Guilty

All emotions tell us some useful information. Even emotions that can cause us discomfort have wisdom to share. The purpose of guilt is to prompt us to reflect on our actions so we can ensure we’re living in line with our personal values. For example, if we feel guilty about the words we said in an argument, the emotion of guilt prompts us to examine ourselves. We might pause to think if that was unkind, or if really meant what we said. If needed, feeling guilty would prompt us to make amends to the relationship. Therefore, guilt can be a very healthy emotion when it helps us learn from our mistakes. It can act as a compass that gives us direction for how we want to behave as a human being.

The Difference Between Guilt and Shame

It can be confusing to distinguish the feelings of guilt and shame, as both can occur when we don’t act in line with our values. But there is a difference: while guilt focuses on how our actions have not measured up in some way, shame focuses on how one’s self is flawed or not good enough. Therefore, if you are feeling guilty it can be helpful to review what actions can be taken to correct a mistake. But if you are feeling ashamed, it may help to acknowledge that you are human and allowed to make mistakes. That does not make you any less of a person.

Guilt can act as a compass that gives us direction for how we want to behave as a human being

How Can I Resolve My Guilt?

Although guilt can be healthy, people can experience a type of guilt that lingers even when they have done everything they can to make amends. This sort of guilt can be a heavy burden to carry on your own. To work towards resolution, it’s important to understand why we are feeling guilty. Here are some questions that can been helpful for this:

  • What specific action of mine am I feeling guilty about?
  • Whose standards/values were violated? Were they my own? Or do they belong to others?
  • Where did these standards come from? Did I develop these standards from my family, peer group, society, the media, or my own values?
  • Are these standards true to my own values? Or are they unrealistic, such as “I must never make any mistakes”?

Guilt can be a heavy burden to carry on your own. But a burden shared can be a burden halved. Our team of Psychologists are here to help you carry this burden if you need it.