Dr Thanh-Tam Pham - 5/10/2020



When you think you cause harm to another person, guilt is a natural emotional response. You may feel guilty for your actions but you may feel guilty for your thoughts or for feelings as well. For example, if you wish someone to have misfortune, hardship, pain, illness or even death or you may feel anger, greed, lust, or not reciprocating love for someone who loves you.

Sometimes you may judge yourself based on the blame or false accusation from others. It is common for rape or domestic violence victims for feeling guilty and shame despite they were victims, although it is the perpetrator who is culpable. A man may blame his partner, to justify his anger and his hurtful actions and she believes him and feels guilty. A wife may accept her husband’s blame and feels guilty for his drinking with friends rather than spend time with the family. A person who has insecurity issues may blame the partner of being uncaring or indifferent or being interested or flirted many other persons. A person who initiates a divorce often feels guilty even though the relationship problem is from both partners.

It is common for a partner to take the blame for the other’s behaviour because of the low self esteem.

Sometimes, a survivor from a disaster or accident feels guilty for escaping death despite bearing no responsibilities for the circumstances.

A person’s sense of guilt usually relates to the moral code one believes from the childhood upbringing, culture, society or religious beliefs.

-      Family:

A child learns about the moral code, about right or wrong from the parents. Parents usually express their disappointment when the child misbehaves and when a child is never been praised for good behaviour, it will induced low self esteem and feeling of guilt. There is great emphasis in Asian families on filial piety following Confucian and Taoist ethics. Some parents use that to manipulate the guilty feelings in their children to get the children to follow their own selfish outdated agenda without paying attention to their children’ s preference or happiness in life. Those parents are selfish and ignorant but they believe they put pressure on their children for the children’s benefits. Children learn from childhood to win the approval of their parents so they can have chronic guilt if they choose a different pathway than the one chosen for them. It can affect their mental health later in life. Children can become depressed and guilty if they cannot live up to their parents’ expectations.

-      Culture:

When a person’s culture holds certain belief is wrong, a person may feel guilty even if there is nothing wrong of the behaviour according to the person’s moral code. An unmarried person brought up in a culture that does not approve of sexual relationship outside of marriage may feel guilty of doing so even if the person does not believe in it. Some culture does not accept marriage between persons of different status.


-      Religious beliefs:

If a person’s actions do not follow the teachings of the religion, guilt can ensue. People can believe that a divine power knows of their actions and make them accountable. Those persons feel guilty and confess and repent and do something to fix the wrong doings.

Buddhists believe in Karma, cause and effect of bad actions, often recite prayers for penance. This can help them to have peace in their mind but they need to truly change their behaviour and not to commit the same mistakes again.


-      Society:

Guilt can result from worrying about what other people will think about certain beliefs and behaviour. This can be a good thing as it supports the social norms and moral rules of the society such as it is wrong to steal, to vandalize other people ‘s property…

Some people may feel so ashamed when they were caught with criminal offences and may chose death over losing their status and good standing in the society.

-      The individual’s moral standards:

Every individual has his/her own moral code of behaviour.  The idea of a guilty conscience is like an internal voice that tells the person about the wrong doing and urges the person to fix the mistakes.

Not everyone feels guilty. Some people do not experience guilt or remorse and can voluntarily harm other people. This is one characteristic personality of a psychopath.


The effects of guilt:

Guilt is a good thing as it describes a sense of regret and responsibility to the actions taken. This leads to changes such as to correct a mistake, to apologize or to decide to behave differently in the future.

Guilt actually encourages people to have more empathy for others, to understand the harm done to the other persons physically and mentally.

Some people may experience chronic or excessive guilt. If parents consistently make a child feel guilty, the child may feel that nothing they do is ever good enough and this can lead to a guilty complex. Parents should encourage their children to develop to their full potential and provide guidance for them to have good moral standards and take responsibility for their action.

Chronic guilt may be an unrelenting source of pain and condemnation over and over again and it will take root in the subconscious mind. This kind of guilt is insidious and self destructive and prevent the person of having pleasure, success and fulfilling relationships in life. The person is stuck in the past and cannot move on. They may live with fear of making mistakes even though they may not do anything wrong. This may give rise to anxiety, depression and shame.

There is a difference between guilt and shame. Shame is a real or imagined unfavourable perception that other people and society judge us and evaluate our “self”.  In guilt, the “self” is not the object of evaluation but the action is the main focus.  Shame is not constructive and does not enhance empathy and understanding others but it has an opposite effect of self preoccupation and isolation.

If you already have low self-esteem, it is easy to feel shame and guilt.

Guilt can cause anger and resentment at yourself, but it can also be directed to others to justify your own actions. It is easier for the ego to blame others for triggering your bad behaviour.


How to overcome guilt:


It is necessary to do a self examination about the situation that causes the guilty feeling rather than just repress and ignore it.

-      Analyse the story of what happened, the feelings and actions of yourself and of others involved.

-      You have to be prepared to have the courage to accept responsibilities of your own actions rather than to rationalize them or putting blame on others.

-      Evaluate the moral standards by which you are judging yourself. Do you act against your own values or of others like your parents, your faith or your society? If you act against someone else values like of your parents or friends, you may sacrifice yourself and your happiness to seek their approval to no avail. You can never live up to someone else’s expectations so there is no basis for your guilty feelings.

-      Identify your emotions, feelings and thoughts that led to your actions to hurt others. Did your actions reflect your true values or what led you to abandon your own values?

-      How did your actions hurt others and yourself? Can that be remedied or make amends?  Take steps to apologize for your action. When an action cannot be repaired such as it directly or indirectly caused another’s death, this can have a long lasting negative impact in your life. You will need a professional therapist to help.

-      Forgiveness and kindness to yourself: you can regret what you did but you have to accept that you are human and can make mistakes. May be you lack maturity and experience to deal with such situation and you can learn from your own experience. You can forgive yourself even if you believe you did something wrong, just as you can forgive someone else who may hurt you.

Make steps to prevent similar actions to happen in the future by practicing mindfulness. That is to be aware of your own feelings of anger when they first arise before you do any actions to hurt others. It is also very important to be aware of the other persons’ feelings and to understand why they behave in such a way to provoke your bad reaction. You have to put yourself in the other persons ‘shoes to have empathy and compassion. Anger and retaliation do not achieve anything but love and compassion will solve the most difficult circumstances that you may encounter.