Guilt: Find everything you need to know about this emotion

Guilt is a human emotion and can come in many different forms, it has the ability to affect everyone differently. Some may have the feeling more often than others, while others may feel the emotion more strongly. Either or, there is no arguing that it is an unsettling feeling that has the potential to stay with an individual internally for life. However, do we really know what is guilt? Are there different types of guilt? What are the causes? Do children feel guilt?


What is Guilt? – Definition

Guilt can be formally defined as a cognitive emotion which occurs after an individual has committed an act that he/she feels was wrongfully done. However, since guilt is cognitively controlled, it does not always have to be due to a physical action. It can be activated from as little as someone’s thoughts. To feel this emotion, is, in layman terms, to feel bad and sorrowful about a situation or something that was done or said. Previous psychologists like to think of it as a “bothered conscience”. Excessive guilt can derive into feelings of depression and despair.

Guilt is a human emotion which falls under the category of negative moods or states. According to Fischer, Shaver, and Carnochan, it’s one of the negative emotions, which also include agony, grief, and loneliness. This is one of the trickiest emotions out there because it is not falsifiable, meaning, individuals are able to feel it for situations that may be out of their control and may not have been their fault.

Different Types of Guilt

Like any other emotion, it has many subtypes. In this case, there are three main types of guilt.

1. Natural Guilt/ Deserved Guilt

Imagine going over to your best friend’s house on her birthday and as you’re approaching the door, you realize that you’ve been so caught up with work these days, that you forgot to buy her a present! How mortifying would it be to walk into her house without a gift! Natural guilt is defined as guilt that occurs regularly and with a specific underlying reason, that is known to the individual. In this scenario, you, as a friend, feel as though it is your rightful duty to present your best friend with the greatest gift of all time on her birthday especially because last year for your birthday she bought you those favorite pair of shoes you always wanted, but just couldn’t afford. This sense of failure in this particular situation is called natural guilt.

2. Free Floating/Toxic Guilt

It has been five months since you attended your best friend’s birthday without giving her a gift and you still feel so terrible about it. You cannot seem to shake this guilty, toxic feeling of what a horrible friend you are. Free floating or toxic guilt is kind of like the build-up of natural guilt. Free-floating guilt is like a nagging mother, constantly on your shoulder! This kind of guilt can occur at any time (hence the term free floating) because it is simply in your subconscious.

Sometimes free-floating guilt can arise from unknown causes as well. In moments, one may begin to feel this sudden wrongful feeling due to an underlying situation that is still unsettled within the subconscious of the individual. Dealing with this type of guilt is often very difficult due to the fact that the cause of the emotion is unknown.

Toxic, free-floating guilt can be carried within an individual in two ways. One, could be like the birthday present scenario, although the situation happened months ago, the individual still feels terrible about it, therefore the guilt remains on their subconscious mind. The other way is if the individual’s personality is just very anxious and guilt built, causing them to constantly feel overwhelmed and apologetic because they believe they cause negative things to occur.

3. Existential Guilt/Essential Guilt

Existential guilt is the guilt that one feels when they are eating fried chicken or perhaps when they go to the zoo. The taste of the chicken is so yummy, however, when they see the free-roaming chicken on the farm, alive and well, it may then just occur to them that when they are in fact eating that chicken, that they’ve killed a real-life animal just like the ones in the zoo.

Existential guilt is different from the other categories of guilt because of the fact that it has a more political point of view of things. For instance, looking at commercials of dogs being abused and abandoned and not donating may make some feel a sense of guilt and sadness since they are not able to help the poor dogs.

4. Borrowed Guilt

This type of emotion happens when you don’t do something you think you should yo simply because you were told to, many years ago. For example “no one in my family would ever stop talking to each other so when I fight with my sister I must patch things up quickly if not I feel guilty.”

5. Self-generated guilt

This derives from a self-imposed deadline or action that remained unfinished but your sense of responsibility turns into guilting yourself for the unfinished job. For example, tell a friend you will invite her over for dinner and never get around to it, this situation for some people can generate a sense of guilt since the action was never completed.

6. Hindsight guilt

It comes from the impossible belief that we should have known how to prevent something that in reality we had no way of knowing. Or same goes, for having the belief that the situation had to be managed a different way when we had no previous learning curve on how to handle it differently. This can be the heaviest type of guilt since it not only provides the negative feelings but it also a sense of hopelessness.

7. Mixture of Guilt

There are three categories that it can fall into. When these categories intertwine, matters can become quite confusing. When free-floating guilt mixes with existential guilt, individuals may begin to feel as though they are to be blamed for everything that occurs negatively. Self-blame and negative thoughts begin to eat people alive and make them take the blame for things that are out of their control.

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How does Guilt affect Children and Adults?

According to Psychologists children who experience a sense of guilt due to their parents’ actions or words result in less aggressive behaviors. Psychologist clarifies that moral guilt is an acceptable form to use on kids because it gives them an idea of what is right and what is wrong. Typically, when they experience these feelings, they realize it is not something good, therefore if ever confronted with the same situation, they will make the correct choice if applicable.

Guilt is shown in children as young as 2 years old. An example can be seen when a child breaks a toy, spills something or gets reprimanded, in cases like these the child will typically cry because they understand that they did something wrong. Scientists have found a correlation between moral in children and their socialization abilities when they age.

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On the other hand, since it is a negative emotion, too much of it can result in childhood depression and can even progress to adolescence. A typical is experienced by children of all ages is the guilt of divorce. When children see their parents fighting or filing for a divorce, they tend to blame themselves because they think they are the common factor. It is important to ensure that the child is aware that parents are not separating because of them to avoid childhood depression.

Guilt affects adults differently. In adults, too much of this emotion has the ability to become detrimental to the individual’s body and can take a toll on their nervous system. Too much of this emotion increases cortisol levels in patients and adrenaline. These increase stress levels in the body and can result in high blood pressure and heart rate and can, therefore, cause swelling and overwhelm the body. In a recent study conducted by Princeton University, researchers found that those who experience it link it to feelings of “heaviness”, they compare it to walking around with bags of groceries tied to them and this is like carrying around extra baggage which can physically take a toll on them.

Causes of Guilt

Guilt has different explanations according to different perspectives in psychology. According to psychoanalysis, people build defense mechanisms to protect ourselves from it. Freud established that if we knew just how awful our awful desires really were, we would experience a terrible guilt, therefore, we develop different mechanisms, among which anxiety, to not feel it. 

Cognitive Psychology establishes that this emotion happens when people are convinced they’ve caused harm. According to this theory, thoughts cause emotions, therefore this negative emotion follows the thought that the person is responsible for someone else’s misfortune, regardless if it’s true or not.

The difference between these perspectives is that the cognitive perspective gives the person the control to change their cognitive processes in order to modify this emotion. While the psychoanalysis works on building defense mechanisms in order to not feel or reduce this emotion. 

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On the cognitive end of the spectrum, it is caused by an array of negative thoughts and overwhelming feelings of blame for past or present events. However, neurologically, it is caused by the amygdala and limbic system. These parts of the brain are responsible for feelings of anger and emotions.

A fMRI study done with patients who had no past history with depression, in the study patients were presented with subjects which were to make them feel angry and guilty, when presented with these situations brain pictures revealed that frontal-limbic system becoming activated. The scans also showed the anterior temporal lobe working with the frontal-limbic system. Research from this study suggests that the superior temporal lobe plays an important role for individuals to develop emotions interrelated to guilt and blame.

Other studies reveal that the anterior cingulate cortex is responsible for these feelings bought on in individuals and causes them to think of others in their own perspective. When presented with a guilt situation and shame situation, results show that the amygdala was activated in it and not shame, while the anterior cingulate was presented in both situations. Studies have also shown that the frontal lobe, which is responsible for decision making and choices is activated and primarily responsible for feelings of guilt, shame and self-conscious decisions.

Guilt vs Shame and Guilt vs Regret

Guilt is a cognitively based emotion which is caused by a feeling of wrongful doing, be it real or made up, while shame is an emotion that is more closely related to feelings of humiliations and can often be seen as the antonym of proud. These two negatively based emotions may have some factors in common but are not the same thing. The biggest difference would be that shame is a comparative emotion and has standards to it.

For instance, it is caused by the realization of not living up to standards made by a society and falling to par or short of this mission. A situation where shame and guilt can be felt simultaneously is when someone gets hurt because of an action committed by [us]. Imagine getting into a car accident, you are fine however your passenger is injured. You feel a sense of this emotion for getting another human being hurt, but you also feel shame in the situation as well for being the reason the person is hurt and feel bad about yourself.

Shame is ego-dystonic, while guilt is ego-syntonic. Shame is in constant conflict with an individual’s self-display and self-being while shame is consistent with it and hurts.

Regret is similar to guilt and shame however it is not the same concept. Regret is an emotion which is felt similar to sorrow. It is feeling remorseful over a missed opportunity or after the consequences of something is revealed, regret may often lead to wanting to re-do things.

How to Overcome Guilt

As you have learned, this emotion knows no age, nor race. It is a multidimensional emotion and has the ability to affect everyone. The results that it can have on the body is detrimental to a person’s health and well-being, therefore, if you or a loved one, are suffering from a guilty conscious try these tips.

1. Understand the purpose of it. Understanding where it is coming from and why is important in order to modify this negative feeling. Think of what may be bothering the individual and target that problem

2. Write about your feelings. This can help put into words this emotion that sometimes is hard to describe. This is also a way to start forgiving yourself.

3. Apologize if necessary. Saying sorry can reduce this feeling as well as accepting if it’s yourself that you let down.

4. Reflect on similar situations in order for this feeling not to happen again. Accept what has happened and attempt to move on. Throughout the acceptance process, it is important to remember that no one is perfect and mistakes can happen. Most important is to keep in mind that this process is a learning experience and will help you clear your conscious.

5. Meditation and mindfulness activities can help clear and relieve a guilty conscious as well.

If you are having a hard time getting over this emotion, it is important to seek the guidance of a counselor that can help you through the journey of acceptance.


Bybee, Jane. (1998). This emotion and Children. Pubmed, 1(2), 233-248.

Michl, P., Meindl, T., & Meister, F. (2014). Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 9(2), 150-157.

Powel, W. (2009). The Effects of this emotion. Psychology Today. 2(2), 94-97.

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