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Feeling Guilty? The Role Guilt Plays in Our Lives and How to Relieve it.

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Define Guilt

1. the fact or state of having committed an offense, crime, violation, or wrong, especially against moral or penal law; culpability: He admitted his guilt.

2. a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined.

Just a Feeling

Based on both the first and second definition of guilt above, one can see how guilt effects us immensely; from the tiniest to the largest infraction. I won't be discussing anything about guilty verdicts in court or guilty versus innocent in terms of the law. The judicial system isn't perfect! I'm talking about basic run-of-the-mill feelings of guilt, possibly put on by ourselves or family or anybody close to us.

While guilt is just another feeling, Psychologists suggest it is the glue that keeps our community together and plays a role in people "doing the right thing". "Guilt is a valuable emotion, because it helps to maintain your ties to the people in your community. It provides a painful consequence for actions that would weaken the groups that you belong to," says Art Markman, PhD and Cognitive Scientist. Many psychologists agree with this notion. Also noted, "Because guilt is painful, people often find ways to soothe their feelings by making up for their actions in some way."

Guilt is different in terms of just feeling's far worse. When people feel bad, they rarely act or make decisions based on just feeling bad about something. Feeling bad subsides, while guilt is a nagging feeling, making us want to act to relieve it, make it up to someone, or be more generous to those we wronged- it really makes us uncomfortable. Study after study will show how people effected by guilt will do something to relieve it- even in made up scenarios for the sake of studies.


Positive Guilt

If you don't kill someone, steal, or be mean out of the overwhelming and foreseen guilty feelings you will have to live with and endure the rest of your life, then guilt is great. Maybe it keeps us out of trouble or on the straight and narrow. Maybe it gives us a moral compass. In other words guilt is good when it keeps us from doing something wrong.

I can even say guilt sometimes make me a better parent. In times when I just feel like giving up or it's been an exceptionally rough day with the kiddos, all ill feelings toward them all go away and perhaps that is guilt sinking in. How could I possibly be upset with the two loveliest little human beings to exist. And the next day, I'm a better parent. Is it guilt or maybe just love? Who knows?

We could also use guilt to make the right decisions and act responsibly the first time. Guilt is hardly useful after the fact.

Miscommunication and misunderstandings happen frequently, but we won't (and shouldn't) feel guilty about those because we didn't do it on purpose, hopefully. Whereas, something we know we shouldn't have done, we should feel guilty after the fact.

Did he forget his wife's birthday?

Did he forget his wife's birthday?

Do dogs feel guilty?

Do dogs feel guilty?

Gutt-wrenching Guilt

The ugly side of guilt goes like this: the survivor(s) of tragedies often feel guilty, family members use guilt to torture other family members, spouses use it against each other, and it seems to be the top contributing factor in PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). The "Why me?" syndrome. Young people who go off to see war, see tragedies, and wonder why not them, if they watched something terrible happen to someone else. What could they have done to change things?

Despite all the negative issues with guilt, they (psychologists, scientists, and medical community) won't be putting a "bad" label on guilt any time soon. It won't likely ever be a symptom of something or a syndrome all by itself. Rather, guilt is supposed to be that meter that tells us how to set things straight again and turn it into a positive.

Even fish can escape those that make us feel guilty

Even fish can escape those that make us feel guilty

Break free

Break free

Identifying and Escaping Useless Guilt

Ever heard the saying "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." How much do you put up with from, for example, family members who blatantly use guilt to make you tolerate their indiscretions or get their way?

People put up with way too much for sake of not feeling guilty. This includes tolerating abuse, for example the woman who gets abused by her husband but feels guilty if she leaves him or takes her children's father away from them. If anything there is as much good as bad associated with guilt so it continues to exist and push us forward or far behind in life.

Useless guilt:

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  • It is known that women feel more guilt than men. Why is that? Should they be better than men, higher standards of niceness? Ever heard how many times a woman says "I'm sorry" for everything; apologizing, justifying, explaining, and asking for forgiveness all day long.
  • Psychologists also note that guilt is associated with pleasure. Have you indulged in a guilty pleasure today?
  • Guilt can be take not an unhealthy and unnecessary level by reacting to others in anger, revenge (for making them feel guilty), defensive or offensive behavior, blame, judgment, or getting depressed because of guilt. Some people will do anything (even negative) to express and deal with guilt they feel.
  • Imposing guilt on our children to get them to behave or be motivated is another negative use of guilt. It can be an oppressive environment. Yes guilt, but more importantly morals and respect, should be used in teaching children, not guilt and other negative emotions. Hopefully we want our children to be kind or considerate because they are and that is their nature. Not because they have to or they'll feel guilty.

My personal ways to escape guilt:

  1. Don't regret things. In a way this is preventing guilt by carefully weighing outcomes and the odds of important decisions in life. If I do this then I know I was in sound mind and body and carefully decided what I needed to do, etc. I don't have many regrets. I also realize not all decisions are easy...and I have to live with that, but hell, I'm only human. Related to this, a successful CFO with some sound advice said that she never lets a piece of paper pass by her desk twice- Possibly because she deals with things once, decisively and thoroughly, having no regret or useless time spent on thinking about that piece of paper again.
  2. Can't please everyone. To relieve all feelings of guilt, I'd literally have to please everyone all the time; impossible. This is the reason for so much unnecessary guilt in our lives.
  3. Don't let guilt interfere with weight loss. Feelings of guilt contribute to why people often overeat. I know..I've binged on food before. When the feeling of guilt creeps in there, it literally makes you eat more to erase that ugly feeling of guilt.
  4. Know when someone is trying to make you feel guilty to get their way. This comes in the form of bargains, bribes, and pressure from others. It can sound like, "If you don't do (fill in the blank) then I will never speak to you (or you will shame our family or I won't love you anymore, etc). usually these people do it often so you can notice a pattern.
  5. Get ambivalent. Ambivalence is the act of having both positive and negative emotions (or thoughts) at once about something or someone. This happens all the time, but many times ambivalence is broken by guilt. Some people lack the ability to be ambivalent about situations- it's somebody's fault. if it's mine then I must feel guilty.
  6. The past is better left there. Ever try to resolve your guilty feelings of something in the past? The person usually doesn't even remember or they still don't forgive you. I like the saying, "Not even God can change the past".

Escaping guilt

Escaping guilt

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L Izett (author) from The Great Northwest on September 24, 2013:


most guilt is completely unnecessary and that's why I felt it necessary to write this hub. We all need this as a reminder. Thanks for stopping by.

Frank Slovenec from San Francisco, CA on September 08, 2013:

Good hub...I do not believe we should live in guilt, guilt drags me down rather than lifting me up to improve. Ask for forgiveness and move when it raises its ugly head...let it know I am forgiven and move on.. your hub exposes our normal thinking..overcome the chains of guilt to open up the possibilities for the future. Thumbs up and interesting

L Izett (author) from The Great Northwest on August 17, 2013:


Busy summer so I haven't been to my comment section in a while. I apologize. I wrote out a long comment for you but I somehow deleted it. My mom can be like this too. People who don't respect boundaries need to be reminded of those boundaries often- like weekly with MY mom! Also I treat her like a small child when she does this, I don't give her any attention- I keep my distance for a while. I wish we didn't have to do this, but I need my own mental health to be intact.

I say BULL to therapists who give the old saying about others do not make us feel this way...yes they do! People we love- family or loved ones in general have this power and KNOW they have this power to push our buttons. They know what hurts us and repeat it- that is knowingly on their part. Not ours. We get blindsided. Keep your distance if you have to...

Donna-1 on July 07, 2013:

I am seeing a "Life Coach" (which means therapy being mass-marketed). I have mentioned my mother makes me feel guilty by harping on what I should be doing for her, what all she has done for me, etc. My therapist always says, "She doesn't MAKE you feel guilty. You feel guilty, but she can't MAKE you feel that way. You decide to feel that way." Somehow I don't see how semantics changes the way things are! My mother intends for me to feel guilty and is responsible for saying things that pull me in that direction; she knows all the buttons to push. Isn't that "making?" I mean, I do understand I do not have to travel in the direction my mother is pointing. But my thoughts and feelings (and all the rest of the CBT lingo) are so wrapped up in 55 years of parlaying boundaries with my mother that I do feel she "makes" me feel guilty. That is her intent. Guilt is the result. Why not call it what it is?

L Izett (author) from The Great Northwest on April 05, 2013:

seanorjohn, Thanks for vote up! and stopping by!

seanorjohn on March 30, 2013:

You make some great points about guilt. I do think it afflicts women more than men. But it certainly holds us all back and prevents us from enjoying life. Voted up

L Izett (author) from The Great Northwest on September 02, 2012:

Carol~ Thanks for stopping by. Yes, it seems to be a universal feeling (or curse) we all experience.

mmsu~ thanks for the comment and votes!

Jeanine~ right you are dear!

L Izett (author) from The Great Northwest on September 02, 2012:

barbergirl~ one thing I learned about guilt is it's like forgiveness- you jsut do it. You just let go. Once I got Rheumatoid arthritis I couldn't physicaly tackle everythign and everyone's needs so I had to let it go. Now that symptoms are a little better I have to say no before I get worse or get overwhelmed- kind of survival instinct now. Guilt is definitely one of those things we do to ourselves. I am sorry to hear about your PTSD- my husband suffered from that too- he is on meds which greatly reduce his symptoms. That is difficult and obviously for survival you should really just let go. A lot of his issues from PTSD stemmed from a need to control things...even before he had it or had any issues. Once I realized for myself that I could not control everything- including the way people felt about me or things I did, then I felt relief. Of course it's not a one-time only choice. You have to continuously keep guilt in check. I think women suffer the most from guilt. Best of luck!

Jeanine on August 27, 2012:

Barbergirl... you can't.... just get over it... it's what we are carrying with us that makes it this way... the angst that each of us carry, is the same angst that overwhelms other as we begin to break into their request... if we cannot say no... then our yes becomes watered down... the difficulty lies in you must stop thinking or letting others make you think that you are supergirl... and oh my ... I'm sure you are a wonderful person... my sister is the Martha type and she is the most wonderful woman... let yourself in on that it's alright to let go and fall into the arms of eternity... I think that what Christ of saying... let your burdens upon me... not the way the church teaches it but just as a person you can think of that thought of each of us... I love the simplicity of that kind of love... it affects me to my core... which we all know always needs and you can live in-between both families... move... it will change everything and

Carol, you are right and I still believe it goes back to Eve... the gift from our earthly father... was he didn't protect Eve and in her fear, she gave us all guilt... yet after one realized the offense one must surely say... Eve was even more important to God...than Adam... although the church does not say this very often... it is written... that not only was Eve the first to sin, but the first to ask for forgiveness and the first to be forgiven... so in history... the story is slightly different than the church teaches us... one must read the accounts to see how deeply in love God was with the both of them... hey they must have been there a bit... because he appears to know then very well and feels really bad for them in that they made some poor choices... Hey MMSU... thx for stopping by...

mmsu from Pakistan on August 27, 2012:

Guilt plays a definite role in our life,but those who do not think about it and overcome it as soon as possible.Great hub and very well laid out.Voted up!

carol stanley from Arizona on August 27, 2012:

Everyone seems to have a lot to say about guilt. I guess it is everywhere. and a feeling very easy to have...and not easy to deal with. Guilt is universal and I am amazed how it just pops in sometimes...Guilt over family, friends and even pets..I guess we can question everything we do and call it guilt. Great hub and brought out some interesting thoughs and feelings.

Stacy Harris from Hemet, Ca on August 27, 2012:

Great hub. I for one suffer from a guilty conscious. The worst part is, the longer I deal with it the worse it gets. I have tried to sit down and figure out what has happened or who I have interacted with that constantly makes me feel guilty. In fact, I swear that I feel enough guilt that those around me need not worry about feeling guilty for what they did. After reading this I realized a few things. First off, I can't say no so I am overwhelmed and overstressed and then I feel bad for not wanting to do what I promised I was going to do. Second off, I suffer from PTSD from a military related incident. That right there has stemmed a lot of problems that I have to learn to control. In addition, my husband and I are from different states. I always feel guilty because we can only live by one family at a time. It breaks my heart knowing that someone else isn't a big part of my kids life because of where we live at the time. I will say one thing though - it is very difficult to break the guilty cycle. Maybe I just need to get over it! :)

L Izett (author) from The Great Northwest on August 22, 2012:

Laura~ it seems I should have titled this hub the guilt women unnecessarily feel. Guilt is something women experience jsut being a woman. We are supposed to take care of everyone else and if sometimes happens, we feel guilty. Yet we can't control everything and can't possibly be the best at every role either.

Our society focuses on women if the man is not pleased or if he cheated. In psychology, the mother is often the first to be blamed for any major mental problems. There's a saying about any issues men face- either their mom loved them too much or not enough. Interesting...

Jeanine~ your first statement about men and women is so true. And perhaps it did all start with Eve. It's an easy connection.

Laura Tykarski from Pittsburgh PA on August 22, 2012:

izettl- jeanine- I visited this hub once and loved it the first time through -just wanted to let Jeanine and the others who have stated so eloquently the pattern of guilt-tripping we do on ourselves as women does seem to be universal. Guilt is born out of blame...maybe if we quit blaming ourselves for not being the perfect wives,mothers, lovers etc. our guilt would be less and those that blame us (male or female) would then have less fuel to start our guilt-ridden fires.

jeanine on August 22, 2012:

I've never met a woman who was not guilty about something... nor a man who was not afraid of being alone... but guilt is where we are so here it is... Eve our earthly mother gave us guilt, women are always have been guilty about something and when we are not, it seems our men our there to help us along...perhaps that's why he has a larger Adams apple. It seems to bother him enough that he gives us a piece of it each time he can... lol... and Amy is right... I have known men, who are considered good Christian men who heap guilt upon their wives. Sometimes I wonder if that's why they practice their faith...Almost all religions do it... think about the first woman to ever wear a burka, what the hell did he tell her... oh you are so beautiful, wear this because I don't want anyone else to see you and sin... omg... you know she was saying to her self... just put the sins of all men right across my back will not funny really... I sometimes think my father was a Christian just where he could get the upper hand with my mom... she was a much better business person and had many more skills than he... yet through Christianity and the dogma that goes along with it... he always lorded over her... although she financed our family and he finally ended up working for her... I will never understand that... the very idea that guilt drives most of my daily thoughts, are tied to religion and don't get me wrong, I'm Christian and have a real relationship with my God... I see no fear in Him to emulate though... yet as I write "Him" I realize how steeped I really am in this approach to life... my own guilt is of paramount proportions... each time one of my children has a bump in the road I immediately think it's something I didn't do or say to them or warn them about... when in reality they are all just living their lives like they should be doing... but no, I want them to do what I need or want, so then I am making them feel guilty... Amy you are right... men create or have created a lot of this guilt that we all endure, they are masters of manipulation... some do it and don't even know they do... men are rewarded for their worship of detail, where women are considered vain... can we help it that they want sex all the time, no, so we set out to be beautiful, then if one achieves that early on in our lives, then we hear, beauty is fleeting, so you better think of something you can do when you are older and have lost your beauty... WTF, didn't you just tell me you wanted me to be beautiful to help you influence that guy at the dinner party... now who in the hell started that train wonder there is a lack of respect for men from women these days... who can trust the SOB's... oh my... am I sounding a little bitter girls... lol... not really... just have grow up and know how men are... women can be just as mean spirited, so whats a girl to do...damn... maybe I should delete this post... I'm feeling a little guilty that I went

L Izett (author) from The Great Northwest on August 09, 2012:

Amy~ haven't been on hubpages for a while but did not notice I missed your comment. Anyway...Some of what you are talking about is some hard earned life lessons especially for women. It seems we get trapped in the role of pleasing everyone from the ime we are little girls 'we should be pleasing'. I am going through much of what you talk about except i'm learning patience with my two small children- often repeating myself a hundred times just to get my 4 yr old to get undressed and put pajamas on or listen to her repeat herself 20 times if she doesn't have my full attention to everything she says. At the end of the day my husband says 'what about him?' and I say 'what about me'? I agree with you about most of the time I think guilt is used in a negative way rather than positive. Thanks for stopping by.

L Izett (author) from The Great Northwest on August 09, 2012:

drbj~ so nice of you to stop by. yes guilt is one of those double-edged swords in that it's there for a reason, but there many times for no reason. Hopefully most of us can distinguish between the two. But I will not give up some of my guilty pleasures :))

L Izett (author) from The Great Northwest on August 09, 2012:

girishpuri~ thanks for your support.

cclitgirl~ not sure why women apologize so much. Must get to the root of that :) I think I got to a point that I felt so guilty all the time about little stuff that it got overwhelm,ing and I just gave it all up. It can get to be a habit though.

thanks for sopptin by.

Girish puri from NCR , INDIA on July 29, 2012:

very well written hub, and the fact is you can't please very on, votd up.

Cynthia Calhoun from Western NC on July 26, 2012:

Oh lordy! I have a guilt complex. As I've become an adult and gotten my own life, I don't feel it quite so much. I'm with you, though. Guilt can wreak havoc with you, even when you've done nothing wrong. I agree that it's good to a point, but then it can make me crazy...and yes, I'm "guilty" of apologizing all day long. What is that about women? Hehe. Thanks for sharing. Very thought-provoking.

drbj and sherry from south Florida on July 25, 2012:

This is a very interesting examination, izettle, of a sometimes very complicated emotion. We often feel that guilt is one of those emotions telling us something important. But not every guilty feeling, is a rational one with a purpose.

We need to focus on the guilt that causes harm to our loved ones or friends. We need to ask outselves, is our guilt trying to teach us something rational and helpful about our behavior, or is it simply an emotional, irrational response to a specific situation?

If you can answer that, you can better cope with any guilt you may be feeling. That's how I view it.

L Izett (author) from The Great Northwest on July 25, 2012:

A K Turner~ i like that saying very much! Thanks for stopping by.

Laura~ Hope this helps your friend get a good perspective of her feelings of guilt. I remember being taught the stages of grief and they were DABDA (Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). What wasn't taught is guilt people feel such as survivor guilt and during periods of grieving. I lost a boyfriend many years ago to a drowning accident (operative word also). It was the first time I hadn't been with him in 9 months (I had a cold and didn't feel well). So of course I thought if I had been there...blah blah blah. But I rationally knew, like you said, it was an accident. Accidents are just what they are- something we can't plan for that's why they're called accidents. I am glad you are not contributing to your friend's guilt or going along with it. I had a good friend that kept me in reality during my time of grief.

Amy Becherer from St. Louis, MO on July 23, 2012:

I try to conduct my behavior with forethought, thinking about the consequences I may regret before I speak or act. If that means I am guarded, so be it. Only I live in my skin. For example, my mother is almost 85, in failing health, and suffering dementia induced by bypass heart surgery 1 year ago. I know this, and it keeps impatience in check when I must reiterate conversations, information, etc. I keep the fact that my mom didn't choose this issue at the forefront. She would, of course, wish to remain independent. I see her fear and growing hesitancy and I feel sad, but not guilty, as I treat her gently. Otherwise, I wouldn't be able to sleep at night. Back in the day, when I was growing up, I attended Catholic schools. Guilt was mandatory. At home, I was taught to be nice, positive and acquiese to others. Everyone's feelings were more important than mine. Late in life, with two divorces under my belt, I came to the same conclusion that you have, izettl. I do the best I can, but like everyone else, I am not perfect. In doing my best, I can accept the fact it is impossible to please everyone. I am no longer an unhappy, anxiety filled chameleon. One of the reasons for two failed marriages was my growing resentment at the insistence of two controlling men, that it was me that needed to apologize, change and get my head fixed. What happened to loving "me?" By the time I gathered my guts and left, I had no idea who I was or what I wanted. I had a full time job pleasing someone else.

I am abhorred at the guilt tactics I experienced during my long stint within the manmade rules of organized religion. It drove me from the back pew, out the door, never to return. As a second grader, "cold sweat terrified of confession", I told the teacher, an 80-year old nun, that I didn't need to go to confession every week. She admonished me with "You're going. Even the saints went every day"!

When I noticed, the adorable, sad face of the puppy in your piece, it is my feeling that dogs, like women, are trained to obey, or submission, if you will (another church rule). Conditioning through training inspires sadness, unease, fear and regret at the mere suggestion of displeasing another. If that defines guilt, I would say dogs do feel guilt. If guilt is instigated by knowledge that an action is wrong and done anyway, then dogs that are trained do feel guilt.

Fascinating, thought-provoking article, izettl, that effects everyone at one time or another...some way more than others. Most of the time, I'd say it is more destructive than beneficial.

Laura Tykarski from Pittsburgh PA on July 23, 2012:

izettl-I really enjoy your hubs and this one in particular has really hit home. A close friend of mine recently lost a family member and she is expressing really deep feelings of guilt over it. She also is becoming more and more angry when those friends (like myself) refuse to jump on her guilt-train fueling this behavior. Her family member died in an auto-accented and the operative word here is accident---you hub helped me clarify why she may be feeling the way she does currently. I am going to share this with her in hopes that it will help her through some. Thanks.

Joseph A K Turner from West Yorkshire on July 23, 2012:

i like my friend's analogy of guilt, its just God's way of saying don't do it again! I think it that sense it is very healthy, shows you are in touch with your maker.

L Izett (author) from The Great Northwest on July 22, 2012:

Pamela~ well I'm glad you don't tolerate guilt from others anymore. I also grew up with guilt- to a point that I was supposed to put others' feelings before my own...all the time.

I don't think guilt is healthy either. I think it can fester inside us and cause stress, etc. Thanks for the votes Pamela!

L Izett (author) from The Great Northwest on July 22, 2012:

Jim for crying out loud, get some pants on!! very good comments about the link between guilt and responsibilities, especially about perceived and other people assigning us reponssibility that isn't ours.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on July 22, 2012:

This is a very good article on guilt. I grew up with guilt being used as a way to control me and my siblings, which is probably the way my parents grew ups0 also. I don't put up with that from anyone anymore. Boundaries are so important in all relationships. I do relate to the guilt when on a diet, etc. I like your methods of dealing with guilt.

I don't think guilt is particularly healthy. I make mistakes and sometimes I apologize because when it is the right thing to do, but it usually isn't because I feel guilty. There is a lot of food for thought in this hub. Voted up, useful and interesting.

TheManWithNoPants from Tucson, Az. on July 22, 2012:


Good subject ... Awesome subject in fact. I lean towards your view of guilt. Things that are running through my mind ... "Guilt" vs. "Guilted" and possibly two kinds of guilt.

Guilt is tied to responsibility or perseived responsibility and sometimes our perception of our responsibilities is flawed.

I think genuine healthy guilt IS at least part of the glue holding us together. However if someone imposes guilt on someone, it means they are assigning a responsibility that they aren't qualified to assign. In other words guilt is a personal thing.

I voted you all up here sis and I'll be thinking deeper about this.

~ jim

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