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 such a feeling typically are lowered self-esteem and a feeling that one should expiate or make retribution for the wrong that has been done. 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 expurge. 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.