Guilt Complex: Why You’re Always Feeling Guilty

Published on: 23 Jan 2023
Clinically Reviewed by Reshawna Chapple, PhD, LCSW
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Guilt impacts people in many ways. While it’s common (and normal) to feel remorseful about a mistake or poor behavior, some people struggle with inappropriate, extreme feelings of guilt. Guilt is an emotion most of us experience at some point in our life, but constant, unrelenting guilt may be a sign of something more, something known as a guilt complex.

What is guilt complex, and what can you do if you or someone you care about is always feeling guilty? Read on to learn more. 

What is a Guilt Complex?

Guilt is typically a response to an action or inaction, but it’s possible to feel guilty about events you weren’t involved with. A guilt complex can cause intense and frequent guilty feelings that aren’t connected to specific events. Someone with a guilt complex may experience one or more types of guilt. 

Types of guilt

There are several types of guilt you may be feeling. Understanding how each might be affecting you can be helpful in learning how to best deal with this often-destructive emotion.

  • Guilty thoughts: When a person has a guilt complex, they may feel guilty about thoughts even if they have no intention of acting on them. They may worry that their thoughts make them a bad person or that others will discover what they’re thinking. 
  • Reactive guilt: This form of guilt is a normal reaction to something that led to a negative outcome. While reactive guilt can motivate some people to make positive changes, others might have difficulty letting go of a guilty feeling. 
  • Existential guilt: People may feel guilty about injustices in the world or where they are in life. Existential guilt can cause people to feel responsible for the suffering of others. 
  • Maladaptive guilt: It’s possible to experience strong feelings of guilt over events you had no control over. This can lead to chronic guilt and can have a negative effect on mental health. 

Signs of a Guilt Complex

You may have a guilt complex if you’re always feeling guilty or if your guilt is interfering with your day-to-day life. Some major indicators of a guilt complex might include:

  • Frequent anxiety 
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Constant crying
  • Fixating on the past
  • Muscle tension
  • Upset stomach
  • Strong feelings of remorse
  • Blaming yourself for things that aren’t your fault
  • Constantly apologizing 
  • Poor concentration 
  • Insomnia 
  • Social withdrawal 

“As the symptoms of a guilt complex continue, it can lead to increases in anxiety, depression, stress, and issues with self-esteem. Oftentimes, these outcomes go hand in hand with guilt complex issues. Learning how to manage and overcome a guilt complex can take working with professionals to help you understand and come to terms with feelings and thoughts.”

Talkspace therapist Minkyung Chung, MS, LMHC

What Causes a Guilt Complex?

While an exact cause has yet to be determined, a wide range of factors can add to a guilt complex. Some of the more common causes of excessive guilt include:

  • Mental health conditions: Excessive guilt is a symptom of several mental health conditions, including obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and depression. Similarly, people with anxiety tend  to reevaluate past behaviors, which can lead to a guilty feeling. 
  • Childhood trauma: When children are frequently treated as though they’ve done something wrong, it can make them feel responsible for negative events. Over time, this can sometimes result in intense feelings of guilt that might lead to increased depression or, in extreme cases, thoughts of suicide. These feelings often persist into adulthood, if people don’t know how to cope with trauma
  • Religious beliefs: Guilt can be a byproduct of religious teachings and traditions. For example, someone may feel guilty when they fail to follow the tenets of the religion they were raised in. 
  • Cultural norms: It can be hard for people to violate the norms of the culture they were raised in, even when they find that as adults, they’ve developed different values. 
  • Social circles: It’s normal to worry about what others think, but when someone feels like they’re always being judged by their peers, it can lead to frequent guilt. 

Guilt theories

“As with other psychological issues, the causes of a guilt complex are, well, complex. There are many factors that can contribute to forming intense guilt, such as childhood experiences, societal expectations, and/or cultural factors. How guilt forms and stays with a person can be dependent on their perception, but some similarities do exist from person to person.”

Talkspace therapist Minkyung Chung, MS, LMHC

Early childhood development

The experiences we have in childhood can shape the way we view the world. Some experts think that guilt is something we’re taught as children. When people are given unhealthy views of guilt, it may contribute to a guilt complex. 

Negative core beliefs 

Many experts believe that negative thought patterns called cognitive distortions are the root cause of a guilt complex. Examples of cognitive distortions include all-or-nothing thinking and jumping to conclusions. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a treatment that teaches people to change these thought patterns and might be helpful in finding relief for a guilt complex.   

How to Deal with a Guilt Complex

Constant and excessive guilt can cause intense distress. Thankfully, there are several coping strategies that can help you ease your guilt and manage this negative feeling when it arises. Below are just a few ways you can learn how to deal with guilt.

Examine your feelings

It can be tempting to ignore negative emotions, especially when you feel guilty all the time. However, acknowledging your feelings and considering where they come from can ultimately help you deal with your emotions in a constructive way. Addressing your feelings head-on can make it easier for you to move forward. 

Shift your perspective

Unhealthy guilt can cause us to view things through a negative lens. Looking at things from another angle can help you see things differently. For example, if you tend to obsess over past mistakes, you could try focusing on positive changes that could help you handle things more productively in the future.

Be kind to yourself

Perfection is an impossible goal. Instead of criticizing yourself for perceived mistakes, practice self-forgiveness. Avoid negative self-talk and take time to remind yourself of your positive qualities. Do your best to treat yourself with the same compassion you show to other people in your life. Practice self-care so you give yourself time to rest, relax, and learn how to cope with stress that guilt and shame might be causing in your life. 

Focus on the positive

Guilt can be all-consuming, especially when you have a guilt complex. Give yourself opportunities to think about the positive aspects of your life. Starting a gratitude journal will give you the chance to document what you’re grateful for and redirect any harmful, negative thoughts. Gratitude has been proven effective in changing how we think about or approach things in our life, even when we’re feeling guilty about things. 

Open up to family and friends

Sometimes, talking to people about what you’re feeling can help you see things in a new light. Trusted friends and family members can provide you with support, encouragement, and advice. Everyone experiences negative emotions, but a strong social support system can make these feelings easier to manage. 

Try therapy 

There are many ways to manage guilt, but if you’ve been struggling with extreme or constant guilt, you may need the help of a mental health professional. A therapist can help you understand your feelings and where they’re coming from. Therapy can also teach you to deal with a variety of emotions — beyond just guilt — in a healthier way.

“Working with a mental health professional, in person or online, is often the best way to work through a guilt complex. Trained professionals can help in identifying individual causes and how to manage them as a person moves forward in life. Being sure that a person understands what’s going on in their own complexities allows for them to be more in control of their own thoughts and emotions pertaining to guilt.”

Talkspace therapist Minkyung Chung, MS, LMHC

Overcome Your Guilt Complex with Talkspace

If you have questions about guilt, online therapy with Talkspace can give you the answers you’ve been looking for. Don’t hesitate to seek help if excessive guilt has been taking a toll on your life or relationships. 

Talkspace is an online therapy platform that makes access to help easy and affordable. Our trained therapists are available when you are, and they understand how much havoc guilt can create in your life. You don’t have to live with painful guilty feelings and complexes. Talkspace can help you learn to let go of it. 

Sources:

1. Explaining Interaction of Guilt and Obsessive-Compulsive Symptoms in Not Just Right Experiences. Clin Neuropsychiatry. 2022;19(1):39-44. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8951168/. Accessed September 23, 2022.

2. Tilghman-Osborne C, Cole D, Felton J. Inappropriate and Excessive Guilt: Instrument Validation and Developmental Differences in Relation to Depression. J Abnorm Child Psychol. 2011;40(4):607-620. doi:10.1007/s10802-011-9591-6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4119797/. Accessed September 23, 2022.

3. Sekowski M, Gambin M, Cudo A et al. The relations between childhood maltreatment, shame, guilt, depression and suicidal ideation in inpatient adolescents. J Affect Disord. 2020;276:667-677. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2020.07.056. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32871699/. Accessed September 23, 2022.

4. McCullough M, Kilpatrick S, Emmons R, Larson D. Is gratitude a moral affect?. Psychol Bull. 2001;127(2):249-266. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.127.2.249. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11316013/. Accessed September 23, 2022.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

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