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Guilt is a complex emotion.

At its most basic level, guilt is what you feel when you’ve done something wrong. We use the idea of guilt to identify the person responsible for wrongdoing, whether it be in an argument or a criminal trial. But many people often feel guilty, even when they do something that doesn’t harm anyone else, like making a change in their lifestyle or refusing to conform to an arbitrary societal standard. 

So how do we know when we should actually feel guilty? And what can we do about those feelings of guilt that just won’t seem to go away? Unpacking the roots of our feelings of guilt, how they can be used by various people and systems, and methods to understand our own emotions can help us interpret our feelings and decide what to do with them. 

What is guilt? 

Guilt is the emotional response that a person has when they have caused harm to someone else. It serves an essential function that allows humans to acknowledge and address their conflicts. Like all other emotions, the feeling of guilt is a sign that our body gives us, telling us to take action. Guilt can be helpful when it leads us to examine our actions and motivates us to make up for our wrongs and avoid wrongdoing in the future. 

Because guilt is a strong emotional response, it can be easily manipulated or misdirected. This happens when we feel guilty without having done something to harm someone else. In this case, guilt does not serve its purpose of allowing us to address wrongs. Instead, it can cause us to feel paralyzed or fall into destructive thought patterns. Guilt may be used to manipulate people intentionally or unintentionally. It can also be a coping mechanism that our body uses to deal with situations out of our control. 

Manipulation through Guilt

We’ve all had the feeling that someone was guilt-tripping us or that we felt guilted into doing something. People often use guilt to get what they want, even if it’s not intentionally manipulative. This can happen in a wide variety of situations, such as parents guilting their children, organizations using guilt to get members involved, or partners in conflict with each other.

While guilt manipulation is a widespread tactic, it’s usually not an effective one in the long run. Although people may be guilted into taking certain actions, they will often come to feel resentful eventually, leading to more significant conflicts down the road. If you think that someone may be using guilt to manipulate you, try taking a step back to look at the situation. Have you done something wrong that needs to be addressed? Do you want to do what the other person is asking you to do? Would it be helpful to make a compromise? 

Taking a step back can help you better analyze the situation and be less susceptible to manipulation. Guilt manipulation often works through passive-aggressive communication, so it can be helpful to communicate openly with the other person about your feelings, ideas, and decisions. If the person is not open to honest communication, you may need to consider your involvement with them and set boundaries around your interactions. 

It’s also important to notice when you may be using guilt to manipulate others. Many of us learn to do this in our families, schools, and larger cultures. People often use guilt and other manipulation tactics when they feel unable to express their needs, desires, and opinions. If you think you may be feeling this, consider what you want and need. Do you feel like someone else is pushing their work onto you? That your opinions are not being heard? Understanding your own feelings can help you to communicate more directly with others, avoiding manipulation and building better relationships in the long run. 

Women and Guilt

Studies have shown that women are often more susceptible to guilt than men. Many of us can see this from circumstantial evidence in our own lives as well. Women often feel that they need to please others and that no matter what they give, it is never enough. This is likely caused by a patriarchal system that relegates women to the secondary role of serving men in their lives, goals, and ambitions. Women are taught that their primary function is to help others, while men are taught to pursue their dreams and ambitions. 

In order to address this societal imbalance when it comes to guilt, all of us need to examine how our gender and upbringing affect our feelings of guilt. Think about incidents in your own life where you have noticed men and women feeling different levels of guilt about the same actions or circumstances. Was someone actually doing wrong in that situation? Were anyone’s needs being ignored? Noticing how we are taught to behave differently is the first step towards creating a fairer society in which we can all communicate openly and work together to meet everyone’s needs. 

Setting Boundaries

When we set boundaries with other people, we acknowledge our own needs and limitations and how they impact our relationships with others. This may look like saying no to a friend’s invitation, limiting the time you spend with family, or not taking on extra tasks at work. Boundaries are essential because they allow us to interact with others from a centered and healthy place. Without them, our relationships can become susceptible to manipulation, miscommunication, clashing expectations, and conflict of all kinds. 

Feelings of guilt can often keep us from setting boundaries. When we set a boundary with someone, they may take it as a personal attack and use guilt to stop us from doing it. If you notice this happening to you, it’s important to remember why you’re setting that boundary. Although people may feel threatened at first, boundaries are generally a way to improve our relationships and connect more authentically. 

Guilt vs. Shame

Guilt is closely related to shame, but they are two different feelings. While a sense of guilt generally revolves around a specific action, shame is a feeling about yourself as a whole. When a person feels shame, they often think that something is wrong with them or that they are a bad person. Guilt and shame may be closely related. Guilt can sometimes lead to feelings of shame and vice versa. 

Shame is often harmful and can lead to low self-esteem and even intensified anxiety or depression. Feelings of shame may come from a person’s upbringing, rigid societal standards, or prejudice that tells us that certain aspects of ourselves are wrong. If your feelings of guilt often turn to shame, it can be helpful to unpack where this shame is coming from. Getting a better understanding can help you understand when to listen to feelings of guilt and when they may be misdirected. 

Don’t feel guilty for being different

Often, people who don’t conform to societal standards, whether it’s because of physical differences, sexual orientation, lifestyle choices, or any number of other characteristics, may feel that their difference is a burden on others. Even when facing discrimination, we may feel at fault and think we should conform to save others the trouble of “dealing” with us. This is an incredibly painful feeling and can make us susceptible to manipulation and misdirected guilt. 

If other people don’t accept your differences, it’s not your fault. You are not responsible for the emotions of others or for making yourself smaller to fit their expectations. It’s essential to recognize if you are facing shame or discrimination for your differences and look at its impacts on you. Often societal shame and/or discrimination can severely impact our self-worth and mental and physical health. If you face these pressures, it is vital to seek out the resources you need to cope with them. 

Survivor’s Guilt

Another common type of misdirected guilt is survivor’s guilt. This feeling is often associated with PTSD and happens when someone survives an event that others do not. Survivors’ guilt can come up in various situations, such as the death of a loved one or the experience of surviving a major collective traumatic event, such as a war or natural disaster. In addition, people who experience major historical or cultural events from afar, such as the children of immigrants and refugees, may also feel survivor’s guilt when seeing those suffering in their family’s home countries. 

Survivors’ guilt can be tough to cope with. Often, no matter how many times you tell yourself that it’s not your fault, the feelings of guilt just won’t go away. If this is the case, try seeking help in your healing process. This may be the help of a therapist or counselor or a community support group with others experiencing something similar. Even if you feel like you are not worthy of the help you need, the best way to help yourself and those around you is by taking care of your feelings and addressing the events that have impacted you. 

Guilt and Mental Illness

Many people experience guilt in combination with mental disorders or other negative impacts on mental health. Spirals of guilt can be a part of various mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and PTSD. In addition, the stigma around mental illnesses in our society can often cause people to feel guilty about experiencing a mental disorder. People experiencing a mental disorder may think that they are faking it for attention, that they don’t deserve to seek help, or that they are burdening others with their problems. 

If you are experiencing mental health issues with or around guilt, it’s a good idea to seek professional help. This can be helpful even if you do not believe you are experiencing a mental disorder or think your symptoms are not severe enough. There is no standard of seriousness that you need to meet to be worthy of seeking help, and addressing your mental health will not be a burden to others. If anything, taking care of your mental health will allow you to better connect with others and create more profound and fulfilling relationships. 

Guilt and Accountability

Sometimes there is actually a reason for feeling guilt. Guilt can help keep us accountable, making us responsible for our actions and their impacts on other people. However, if guilt becomes too overwhelming, it can actually cause us to distance ourselves or lash out at others. In this case, it actually keeps us from making amends for our actions and can cause greater harm to ourselves and others in the long run. 

If you are feeling guilty for something you have done wrong to someone else, take time to understand what has happened. What did you do wrong? Why did you do it? How did it impact the other person? How can you apologize to them and offer to make amends in a meaningful way? 

These questions can help you get out of a guilt or shame spiral and actually address the reason for your guilt. In this process, it’s also crucial to have compassion for yourself. Know that your actions do not define you as a person and that it is possible to make different choices, no matter what you have done in the past. If you feel that you cannot control your thoughts and behavior, seek help. You may be suffering from a mental disorder or some other issue preventing you from understanding and having agency over your thoughts and feelings. Taking steps to address such an issue is one of the best ways to help yourself and the people in your life in the future. 

Coping with Guilt

Guilt can be extremely difficult to cope with, especially if it is ingrained in your behavioral and thought patterns. If you feel guilty regularly or for things you cannot control, there are some strategies you can use to address these feelings. 

Unpack Your Feelings

Feelings of guilt often seem overwhelming. To understand what is happening, it is helpful to think about why you feel guilty and where this feeling is coming from. This can help you get perspective and understand if you have actually done something wrong or are suffering from manipulation or societal pressure. 

Seek Help

If you feel unable to address your feelings on your own, you are not alone. It is very common to suffer from feelings or thought patterns that seem impossible to understand or control. If this describes your situation, a mental health professional can help you better understand what is going on and some strategies you can use to address it. 

Be Kind to Yourself

No matter what happens, it is essential to have compassion for yourself. This does not mean absolving yourself from responsibility for any wrongdoing, but it does mean not letting your feelings of guilt define you. By giving yourself compassion and understanding, you can feel safer actually addressing the source of your guilt and figure out how to respond in a healthy way. 

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