Feeling guilty is a universal experience; it plays an important part in our social development and the maintenance of our relationships.
Like any emotion though, it can get out of hand so that it influences us in ways that are costly to us personally. Some people say that guilt is an almost constant presence in their feelings, decisions, and behaviour.
When guilt becomes pervasive like this it is called ‘unhealthy guilt’. The guilty feelings aren’t the consequence of anything you’ve done or failed to do. The cause cannot be identified and they can’t be linked to a particular point in your life.
When this happens it’s a safe bet that the guilt is serving no useful purpose; it’s chronic, nagging and generally described as unhealthy or toxic guilt.
Guilt is private
One of the unique features of guilt is that it is largely a private exercise. Most emotions provoke a noticeable response, and even if these are fleeting and minimal, they are still visible to others, so they have an idea of what we are feeling.
But with guilty feelings, facial expressions are either absent or easy to mask, and no other external signals that give clues to what we are experiencing. We suffer in silence, and when guilt becomes a regular companion, we suffer alone.
In contrast with the private and personal experience that guilt is, it is also a closely linked to our social bonds; when you feel guilt you fear the judgment or reactions of others who matter to you in some way. So guilt isn’t just a feeling, it is also part of our social rituals and behaviour.
This points the way to getting rid of unhealthy guilt. In cases where the unhealthy feelings are directly associated with a relationship, you might say that the relationship is part of the problem, but it can also be part of the solution.
Up to a point. While talking it through can help to purge the unwanted guilty feelings, labouring the point with the other person will simply make them feel bad about something they have no control over.
‘A problem shared…’ may be sound advice, but don’t overdo it. As I’ve already mentioned, guilty feelings are a personal matter (whether they stem from a genuine cause for guilt or not), so don’t expect a friend to give you absolution!
Baumeister, et al. ‘Guilt: An Interpersonal Approach.’ Psychological Bulletin 115(2), no. Mar 1994 (n.d.): 243–67.
Breggin, Peter R. Guilt, Shame, and Anxiety: Understanding and Overcoming Negative Emotions. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2015.