Why Do I Feel Guilty When I’ve Done Nothing Wrong?

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This is an issue that psychologists and philosophers love to noodle over. After all, unchecked and inappropriate guilt can ruin a life. Some of their assumptions are:

  • Parents are masters of inducing guilt as a means of controlling their children, even when there’s no real misbehaviour or the guilt is out of proportion. As an adult, you may seek out a partner, a church, friends, or bosses who reinforce this behaviour. If you avoid those connections, you’re perfectly capable of playing the role yourself, pushing your own buttons.
  • At some point you do something you think is wrong and get away with it. The knowledge that you didn’t pay your dues when it was appropriate returns again and again in unrelated circumstances because your moral center is unsatisfied. This is true even when you didn’t actually commit the act, but have convinced yourself that you did, as when someone you don’t like suffers a misfortune.
  • You’ve avoided the temptation to do something that you consider wrong, but just the fact that you wanted to do it is enough to trigger guilt. This is especially true if the temptation is ongoing .
  • You may have been taught or developed an out-size sense of your own importance and responsibility in the world. A co-worker loses her job – you should have talked to the boss on her behalf to prevent it. Your partner is frustrated by his fading sports skills – you should have encouraged him to work harder at the gym. Your teacher is embarrassed by a challenging student ­– surely you could have seen the incident coming and diverted everyone.

The causes of guilt are diverse and complex. Understanding why you feel guilt is important, but it is only a first step in the process of getting your guilt under control. If you don’t know why these feelings come up, you’re not going to be successful in dealing with them. A therapist can be valuable at this stage, giving you accurate feedback and helping you explore your experience for clues. My experience is that people can overcome these feelings. Most of the time, guilt is trying to tell you something about yourself. Your vision of the world or yourself is not completely accurate, and understanding what’s going on will help you feel better, now and in the future. Once you understand the source of your guilt feelings, you and your therapist will find the solution that helps you let go of your guilt.

Unexplored feelings of guilt serve no purpose, apart from making you feel bad. The sooner you let go of it and move on, the sooner you can get back to enjoying your life. And there is always a way to do that, even if you cannot see it right now.

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