Guilt is the feeling an individual has of being personally culpable for some offence arising from an act or from a failure to act, behave or perform in some way. Associated with guilt typically are lowered self-esteem and a feeling that one should expiate or make retribution for the wrong that has been done.
There are different types of guilt. You may feel guilty for something you’ve done, thought or felt, for a ‘mistake’, situation or experience, for something negative you believe yourself to be, or for no known reason at all. There can be symbiotic guilt (feeling guilty for experiencing more of something ‘positive’ or less of something ‘negative’ than another/others), or guilt from feelings of indebtedness to a person, or the universe even.
Guilt is often self-ascribed on an imaginary basis, deriving from an underlying life-uncertainty or feeling of inadequacy. Since such personality orientations are so frequently encountered, it is not surprising that there is almost a universal predisposition towards guilt, even towards imagined guilt.
Guilt that arises with certitude from the breach of recognized standards or laws may often be terminated with the initiation of objective punishment. Guilt that arises from a supposed breach of obtusely evident standards may be more difficult for the personality to expunge. A particular case lies among more exalted religious ideals involving the practice of virtue, self-sacrifice and the performance of religious duties. Omission of such behaviour may easily give occasion, in those whose personalities are guilt-prone, for an imagined state of sinfulness. The sufferer may proclaim that he or she is estranged from God, a sinner who may be cast into the darkness. Imaginary sinfulness and real or imaginary guilt can cause serious depression and lead to nihilistic amorality, crime and suicide.
One classical form of guilt is that experienced by survivors of catastrophes. This was experienced by those who lived through the German concentration camps, and is frequently observed in survivors of terrorist attacks and disasters like the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise and the explosion of the Piper Alpha oil platform. People question their own right to survival, especially when they had to struggle with others for the few remaining chances of survival in a panic situation.
Like cancer, guilt tends to take over all of the healthy responses and feelings in its path, and is very difficult to remove. The guiltier someone feels, the more likely they may continue the behaviour they feel guilty about, because the worse anyone feels (and the more they believe they are 'bad' or 'wrong'), the more their behaviour may reflect that. Guilt can also lead to resenting a person or situation associated with the guilt; in this sense, guilt may actually be repressed anger at something you feel you don’t have a right to be, do, or express.
Negative beliefs about yourself (“I’m bad”, “I’m wrong”, “I’m a mistake”), and beliefs around mistakes themselves (“Mistakes are bad”, “Mistakes are punishable”, “I’m guilty if I make a mistake”) can also lead to guilt.
The fear of facing guilt/avoiding guilt can keep you from owning and taking responsibility for whatever it is you feel guilty about, and bringing love, awareness, compassion, understanding, and forgiveness to those places.
Shame is different to guilt, yet they can relate. If you carry shame, including a ‘shame of being’ (feeling that you are ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ for no known reason/holding limiting beliefs such as those above), you may not only be more inclined to feel guilt in general, or after making a mistake, you may feel you are a mistake.
Martin Buber said, 'Man is the being that is capable of guilt, and capable of perceiving his guilt'. The capability of guilt, or moral responsibility, implies that an individual is capable of free self-determination, responsible behaviour and the assumption of responsibility.
The overemphasis on popular psychology has confused the distinction between guilt and the feeling of guilt. Feeling guilty may have nothing to do with the fact of guilt. A person responsible for a disaster may not feel guilty at all and a person not responsible for a disaster may feel guilty. There is tremendous potential for creativity and growth with the appropriate assumption of responsibility for an act, acknowledgement of actual guilt.