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Guilt: when does it become too much?

Who among us, at least once in our lives, has not experienced guilt? We may have felt guilt toward our partner, a friend or a family member. But what is guilt?

Guilt is a complex emotion, influenced by cultural factors and underlying altruistic gestures. But when does it become detrimental to our well-being?

In this article we will try to give some thoughts on guilt to better understand, among other things, what are the mechanisms from which it can arise and what can fuel guilt.

Guilt: psychology and culture

According to psychologist Izard, guilt is evolutionarily delineated later than basic emotions and has the role of inhibiting acts considered immoral.

Guilt is linked to cultural context: what is considered wrong in one culture may be accepted in another. It is then attributed by society, that is, by the negative judgment of others.

The ability to feel guilt is closely related to the personal tendency to feel regret for any harm, albeit unintentional, caused by one's actions.

Feeling guilty: why does it happen?

Guilt has been defined by Miceli and Castelfranchi, researchers at the CNR Institute of Psychology in Rome, as one of the most pervasive states of suffering experienced by the individual. But what ingredients season individual guilt? We can identify three main components of guilt:

  • ‍theevaluation of harmfulness: one evaluates in terms of harmfulness the action performed or the mere intention of the action

  • the assumption of responsibility: one believes that one had the purpose of causing the event or, at any rate, the power to avoid, foresee or prevent it

  • the impairment of moral self-esteem: one believes that one has violated important shared values or norms. One's "moral image" may be compromised when one experiences a lowering of self-esteem in relation to personal values.

Guilt over a betrayal

Betrayal can have a very strong impact on romantic relationships, so much so that it can lead to relationship crises and, in some cases, cause the relationship to end altogether. It can take various forms, such as emotional or physical infidelity, breaking a promise or agreement, or acting contrary to the interests of another person close to you.

The awareness of having caused pain or harm to someone can intensify guilt. This awareness can lead to reflection on how one's actions have negatively affected the betrayed person and lead to remorse and repentance.

Repentance may prompt the person to try to compensate or repair the harm caused, although this is not always possible or sufficient to heal the wound.

Guilt over betrayal may be accompanied by deep shame and fear of losing the person who has been betrayed. If the betrayal has not been revealed, the fear of being found out or the tension of keeping the secret can exacerbate these feelings.

How to overcome the guilt of cheating? Dealing with guilt over cheating requires courage and introspection. It requires acknowledging and accepting responsibility for one's actions, looking closely at one's feelings of guilt to understand the reasons that caused the betrayal and harm.

Guilt over betrayal can be an emotional challenge that requires commitment and work on oneself. Forgiving oneself for what one considers a mistake can be just as important as sincerely asking for forgiveness. It is also helpful then to recognize that forgiveness cannot be imposed and that the process of healing the relationship may take time.

Guilt toward children

Guilt can also be experienced in family relationships, whether it is guilt toward parents on the part of children, but also guilt toward children on the part of parents.

What hides a child's guilt toward their parents? The most common reasons why a child may experience guilt may be:

  • unfulfilled expectations, related for example to school performance, career, life choices, or behavioral standards

  • independence and autonomy: as children grow older and try to become more independent, they may experience guilt about wanting to leave the parental home, especially if they perceive that their parents are emotionally or physically dependent on them

  • role of caregiver: in some families, children find themselves having to assume responsibilities for caring for their parents due to illness, disability, or other factors. This, for example, may generate guilt toward aging parents when children live far away because they have decided to go live abroad

  • family problems: children may feel guilty about family problems that they perceive as caused or aggravated by their actions, even if they are not directly responsible.

Parental guilt, on the other hand, may arise from concern that they have failed to live up to their role, made serious mistakes, or failed to provide their children with what they needed.

This guilt can be influenced by many factors, including personal and social expectations, comparisons with other parents, and the pressure to balance work and family responsibilities.

Parents may experience guilt toward their children for their separation or for certain life choices, or, in the case of a woman, it is possible to feel guilt toward a child for returning to work after motherhood.

Is guilt only one?

According to psychiatrist Francesco Mancini, guilt can be distinguished into two different types: altruistic and deontological. These two types of guilt are often closely related, but they differ markedly, including on a neuroanatomical basis and in their role in psychopathology.

Deontological guilt and altruistic guilt

Deontological gu ilt appears to activate the insula and anterior cingulate cortex, areas also connected to emotions of disgust and self-reproach; on the other hand, altruistic guilt is associated with activation of prefrontal areas also involved in empathy and understanding others' minds.

One way in which altruistic guilt can manifest itself is in what is known as "survivor's guilt," which is the emotion a person experiences when, comparing himself or herself with others, he or she believes that he or she has an advantage as to success, ability, well-being, health status, or other areas.

Let's take the example of two siblings: the first healthy and robust, an honors engineering graduate, the second with a neurodevelopmental disorder, almost completely dependent on parental care; the first sibling thinks, "why him? I am luckier, I feel guilty."

Another type of altruistic guilt is interpersonal guilt: it is experienced by the person who has strong empathy for the other person's grief and feels that he or she has not done enough to help. Here is one more example: a person who is in another city receives the news that his mother is dying and immediately sets out to say goodbye one last time. He does not arrive in time and feels a strong sense of guilt "for not being there for her and holding her hand as she died."

Speaking of deontological guilt, on the other hand, indicates a type of emotionality strongly influenced by moral canons. Thus, in such a case, we are talking about a violation of a moral rule even without harm to a third party; an example would be the guilt of an individual who has engaged in sexual behavior assessed as "wrong" according to religious principles.

Pathological guilt

Guilt becomes pathological when it exceeds normal emotional reactions to specific behaviors and begins to negatively affect a person's psychological well-being and daily life in a significant and prolonged way.

Guilt can impact mental health along with other symptoms that indicate the presence of problems that have taken on a pathological nature. The main characteristics of pathological guilt include:

  • pervasiveness: one ends up feeling guilty about everything when guilt extends beyond specific situations and becomes a constant feeling that permeates various aspects of a person's life, regardless of the presence of actual reasons for feeling guilty

  • excessive intensity: the person feels guilt disproportionate to the situation that triggered it. This can include feeling extremely guilty for small mistakes or actions that would not normally have warranted such a reaction

  • psychological avoidance and isolation: the person may begin to think "the guilt is killing me" and avoid social situations or tasks for fear of making mistakes that could cause further guilt, leading to a vicious cycle that can lead to isolation

  • difficulty in forgiving oneself: despite the passage of time or resolution of the situation that triggered the guilt, one struggles to forgive oneself, maintaining a continuous cycle of self-criticism and remorse.

Pathological guilt can be the manifestation of numerous mental health problems, including:anxiety disorders, depression, low self-esteem, eating disorders (in some DCAs it is not uncommon to experience guilt after eating) and others.

Guilt, depression and pathological bereavement

Guilt also plays a major role in major depression and pathological bereavement. In this disorder, feelings of guilt are directly linked to negative self-appraisal, unrealistic worries, and rumination.

Guilt, in these cases, negatively impacts self-image and the perception of personal worth. In this sense, people may, on the one hand, interpret numerous daily events as evidence of personal flaws and, on the other hand, feel an excessive sense of responsibility for unpleasant situations.

Guilt and anxiety

Anxiety and guilt, in a person's experience, can feed off each other. Guilt can link to anxiety if a person worries incessantly about the consequences of his or her actions or the possibility of having hurt others.

Perfectionism, often associated with anxiety disorders, can lead to high personal standards that, when not achieved, can cause a person to experience intense guilt.

At the same time, anxiety itself can intensify guilt. People with anxiety disorders such as panic disorder or phobias, for example, often avoid feared situations. This avoidance can lead to guilt about not facing one's fears, generating thoughts such as "I should cope" or "I am weak."

How to "overcome" guilt

Provided we do not turn into paralyzing self-condemnation, feeling sorry for the pain we might cause in others can prove extremely fruitful. Indeed, guilt can open up spaces for reflection and, moreover, can prompt a gesture of reparation.

How does one eliminate guilt? It is simply not possible. We cannot eliminate any of the emotions we feel, but rather try to welcome what comes from our feeling, understanding what kind of "signal" guilt represents for us.

When we feel guilt that seems excessive and wonder how to stop feeling guilty, we can:

  • Recognize and accept our feelings of guilt without judgment. Understanding that feeling guilt is a human emotion can be the first step in living more peacefully with ourselves by

  • analyze the situation by asking ourselves, "The guilt I feel is coming from where?" to reflect on the actions that caused these feelings and why we feel guilty.

  • learn from experience: identifying any mistakes made and thinking about how to avoid them in the future can be an opportunity for personal growth.

  • seeking to repair the harm caused: making amends, if desired, can take various forms, such as sincerely apologizing, offering compensation, or demonstrating through actions a commitment to change behavior

  • Forgiving oneself: self-forgiveness is a crucial step in not getting stuck in one's guilt. Recognizing the difference between guilt and responsibility can enable us to learn from our mistakes.

If guilt is excessive, persistent, or interferes with one's daily life, it may be helpful to seek support from a psychological wellness professional. An expert can help explore the roots of guilt and develop strategies for managing it in a healthy way.

Coming to terms with guilt is a process that takes time, patience and commitment. But, with the right support, it is possible to learn to embrace and understand your emotions in order to live a fuller and more conscious life.

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