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Do you often feel a sense of guilt? Here we explain what guilt is and how you can get help if it is overwhelming.

What is guilt?

Guilt occurs when a person believes they have done something wrong or acted against their own moral values or societal norms. It is an emotional response that often involves a realization or perception that one has caused harm or discomfort to someone else, which can lead to regret and a desire to make amends.

Guilt can serve as an important social and moral regulation mechanism that motivates individuals to maintain ethical behaviors, repair relationships, and avoid future actions that may harm others. Although guilt can be painful, it plays an important role in human coexistence by promoting responsible and empathetic behavior.

Guilt can also be unrealistic and part of mental illness. If feelings of guilt are overwhelming, counseling can be helpful to provide support and help to resolve situations and process the feelings.

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Why do people feel guilty?

Guilt can occur when we violate personal or social norms, cause harm to someone else, regret decisions that have had negative consequences, fail to meet expectations, or experience survivor’s guilt. These feelings signal a concern for the well-being of others and a drive to act ethically.

While guilt can be challenging, it plays an important role in our social and emotional development by promoting empathy and responsibility. Managing guilt constructively means reflecting on our actions and taking steps to make amends or learn from our mistakes. Guilt can also be part of mental health problems such as depression or addiction. In such cases, it is important to seek professional help in order to process these feelings, which in many cases are not always realistic.

What is the function of guilt?

Guilt serves several important functions in human behavior and social interaction. They act as a moral compass that helps individuals navigate complex social environments by signaling when they have acted in ways that are contrary to their own or shared values. This emotion motivates us to take responsibility for our actions, especially when they have caused harm or discomfort to others, and encourages reparation and reconciliation.

Guilt helps maintain social bonds by promoting understanding, empathy and cooperation among individuals. Acknowledging wrongs and striving to make amends strengthens trust and relationships within a group or community. Overall, guilt plays a central role in maintaining social order and ethical behavior, which is essential for group cohesion and personal development.


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How can guilt be managed?

Managing guilt involves acknowledging and accepting it, reflecting on its causes, taking steps to make amends, and learning from the experience. Practice self-compassion, share your feelings with someone you trust for support and perspective, and consider professional help if the guilt is overwhelming. These steps help reduce the negative effects of guilt and promote personal growth and well-being.

Treatment for guilt

Treatment for guilt often involves using psychotherapeutic methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), psychodynamic therapy, and compassion-focused therapy (CFT) to develop self-compassion. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) can also be used to teach individuals to accept their feelings and act in accordance with their values.

Mindfulness and meditation can reduce the stress and anxiety associated with feelings of guilt. Support groups can also be helpful. Working with a therapist can provide tools and strategies to effectively manage guilt, leading to a more positive self-image and promoting personal growth. Acknowledging guilt as part of the human experience and seeking appropriate treatment can ease the path to dealing with it constructively.


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12 common questions and answers about guilt

What is guilt?

Guilt occurs when a person believes they have done something wrong or acted against their own moral values or societal norms. It is an emotional reaction that often involves a realization or perception that one has caused harm or discomfort to someone else, which can lead to regret and a desire to make amends.

What is the difference between shame and guilt?

Unlike guilt, which focuses on specific actions or behaviors, shame concerns the person’s self-perception as a whole. Guilt says ‘I have done wrong’ while shame often involves thoughts that ‘I am wrong’.

What are our basic emotions?

Basic emotions are universal feelings that people everywhere experience, regardless of cultural background. These innate emotions include joy, interest, sadness, fear, anger, shame/guilt, surprise and disgust.

Why do people feel guilty?

Guilt can occur when we violate personal or social norms, cause harm to someone else, regret decisions with negative consequences, fail to meet expectations, or experience survivor’s guilt. They can also be part of mental health problems, in which case they are not always realistic and may require therapy.

What is the function of guilt?

Guilt plays a central role in maintaining social order and ethical behavior, which is essential for group cohesion and personal development.

How can guilt be managed?

Managing guilt involves acknowledging and accepting it, reflecting on its causes, taking steps to make amends, and learning from the experience. Practice self-compassion, share your feelings with someone you trust for support and perspective, and consider professional help if the guilt is overwhelming.

How can guilt be treated?

Guilt can be treated with different methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), psychodynamic therapy, schema therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT).

What is CBT?

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based form of psychotherapy that aims to change negative thought patterns, emotions and behaviors that contribute to mental health problems.

Is guilt part of mental health problems?

Guilt can be part of mental health problems. For example, with addiction, you may feel guilty about what you did while under the influence. In depression, you may have guilt that is unrealistic because you misinterpret things in the depression. If you have overwhelming feelings of guilt, it is important to seek help in therapy.

I feel guilty about something I did, what can I do?

The first step is to acknowledge and accept the feelings and act on them by apologizing. If they are overwhelming, you can also seek therapy to get more help. Guilt can be part of other mental health problems.

Can you get therapy online?

It is possible to get therapy online, at Lavendla we have psychologists and therapists who work digitally.

Where can I seek help?

If you want to get therapy, we recommend that you contact a licensed psychologist or therapist. You can book a first appointment with one of our therapists here at Lavendla. We make the hard things easier.

Treatment with cognitive behavioral therapy

Treatment approaches can differ between different schools of therapy. This is what a treatment can look like with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which is a method that can be used for many different problem areas and conditions:

Understanding and assessment

The first step is to understand the problem and that it is okay to seek help for it. A licensed psychologist can help you assess your situation based on your life situation. You can also fill in assessment forms.

Psychoeducation and objectives

You will learn about the problem and how it affects you both physically and mentally. It is important to understand what is happening in your body, thoughts and feelings. It also involves setting goals for treatment.

Tools to change behaviors and patterns

This works on identifying and changing patterns of thinking that are linked to the problem. This will help you develop a more nuanced picture and increase your ability to manage emotions, thoughts and change behaviors. Together with your therapist, you will explore situations and learn how to deal with them. You will also be given homework to practice between sessions.

Follow up and evaluate progress

You will have support from your psychologist throughout the process. At the end of the treatment, you will also receive a plan to continue practicing and maintain your progress over time. Feel free to book a first session with one of our licensed psychologists or therapists to see how we can help you.

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Written by Ellen Lindgren

Licensed psychologist

Ellen is a licensed psychologist and has experience mainly in clinical psychology where she has worked with various conditions such as stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, crises and trauma in primary care and psychiatry. She has also worked with research while studying in the US and with affective disorders and insomnia at Karolinska Institutet, Sweden.