Written by Amber Erickson Gabbey | Published on January 13, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on January 13, 2014

What Is Guilt?

Guilt is the feeling that you have done something wrong or violated the rules (real or perceived) of a relationship, culture, religion, or state. Guilt affects some people more than others. Some guilt is a positive thing, in that it means you are aware of mistakes and how they affect other people. But excessive or unfounded guilt can be harmful, and may be a symptom of an underlying mental condition.

Excessive guilt can cause or exacerbate low self-esteem, depression, and other mental health problems. Guilt can become a habitual negative response to certain behaviors, and is often present in people who are coping with addictions.

Guilt Disorders

Many diseases and mental disorders have symptoms that include feelings of guilt, especially those related to mental health. Some examples include:

  • bipolar disorder
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • social anxiety disorder
  • scrupulosity (religious guilt)
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • alcoholism or drug addiction
  • behavioral addiction

If feelings of guilt are interfering with your ability to live a full and happy life, consult a mental health professional. If you’re thinking of harming yourself or others, seek emergency medical attention.

Treatment for Guilt

One recommended way to address feelings of guilt is to make amends for what you’re feeling guilty about. At the same time, the past can’t be changed. Not all wrongs can be righted.

Treatment for excessive or problematic guilt will depend on the underlying disorder or situation. Therapy of some kind is a common element, including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT can help patients see events in their proper perspective. Medications may also be prescribed. A therapist can work with you to develop awareness of your guilt, your guilt triggers, and how to effectively assess and cope with feelings.

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