People who always feel guilty even when they’re not at fault usually display these 3 behaviors

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Guilt is one of the most difficult and complex emotions one can feel. We’re all human—we all make mistakes. It’s normal to regret our poorer decisions and feel guilty about them.

In fact, I think feeling remorseful about our mistakes is a crucial step in learning how to do better moving forward. We can’t improve ourselves if we don’t realize that we have to be better.

However, many people feel extremely guilty. It’s so extreme that they can’t get over it. This kind of guilt is unproductive.

Some people even feel guilty constantly, even if they haven’t done anything wrong. This is called having a guilt complex, and it can be quite an impediment in one’s life. 

People who always feel guilty even when they’re not at fault usually display these 3 behaviors.

1) They become codependent

Having a guilt complex can feel emotionally overwhelming. People can be filled with shame, and their self-esteem typically plummets because of this.

Their overall functioning, therefore, gets negatively affected. They find it hard to make decisions (out of fear that they’ll make a mistake again) or experience bouts of depression, making it hard for them to go through daily routines.

Thus, they tend to develop codependent relationships with other people to compensate for this dysfunction.

People, for example, may develop codependent relationships with their partners or family members. They rely on them for things like:

  • Everyday tasks;
  • Emotional labor;
  • Coping mechanisms.

2) Chronic guilt

Once a person develops a guilt complex over a single event, they can spiral and feel other negative emotions such as loneliness or self-hatred.

Chief among these emotions, however, is even more guilt.

After one develops feelings of guilt over something they did not do, they become more prone to feeling guilty for even more things that they are not responsible for.

For example, mothers of deceased children may develop guilt complexes over their children’s death even if they are not responsible for it. They can begin to feel guilty over the other unfortunate things that happen in the family (again, even if it’s not their fault).

Their intense shame urges them to take on all the blame

3) Self-harm

As a result of this intense guilt and shame, some people may even resort to self-harm as a coping mechanism.

Because they think that they can no longer remedy the situation, they punish themselves out of a misguided sense of justice. If they caused harm (even if they didn’t), they believe they should be harmed as well.

Thus, the person with a guilt complex may take it upon themselves to “deliver justice,” so to speak, and deliver their own punishment.

They are also misguided in thinking that self-harm can reduce their feelings of guilt. They think that by “righting their wrongs,” they’ll finally be let go of the guilt.

Unfortunately, the opposite is usually true: It can even worsen their overall emotional state, and their guilt complex remains. It can even lead to even more destructive behaviors, not just to oneself but also to others.

Defining guilt

According to the American Psychological Association, guilt is an emotion where one feels uncomfortable, self-conscious, and regretful about doing something that they perceive to be wrong. People feel guilty about all sorts of mistakes, ranging from the insignificant to the life-changing ones.

Furthermore, intense guilt can spiral into other negative emotions and mental conditions, like shame, depression, and even anxiety. It can hamper everyday functioning and overall emotional and mental wellbeing.

Guilt complex

We typically feel guilt when we commit mistakes. However, some people feel guilty about things that they aren’t even responsible for. Having this kind of guilt is called having a guilt complex.

Not only is the guilt somewhat irrational because they feel bad about something they didn’t do, but it tends to be even more intense than the guilt other people feel for the things they did. 

How does one get a guilt complex?

As with most mental, emotional, or psychological issues, the causes can be multifactorial and complex. Each person’s guilt complex is different, and it can be downright impossible to pinpoint an exact cause.

Some common factors include:

  • Preexisting mental health conditions: Having mental health conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and depression before the guilt-triggering event makes it more likely for a person to develop intense guilt or a guilt complex. More on this below.
  • Trauma from youth: Some adults are overly anxious due to their upbringing. This can be caused by their parents making them feel responsible for negative events when they were young. This can lead to guilt complexes later in life if they are unable to cope with trauma. 
  • Religiosity: Some studies show that being religious can lead to a more apprehensive nature—and thus make someone more vulnerable to feelings of guilt.
  • Cultural values: Some cultures are incredibly polite and make taking accountability for one’s actions an important point. When taken to the extreme, this can lead to guilt complexes.
  • Social anxiety: Some people are overly conscious about how other people perceive them. Thus, they are always on their toes, overly afraid of committing mistakes or doing something that will make other people view them negatively.

Related mental health conditions

As mentioned, preexisting mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and OCD can aggravate or be a cause of guilt complexes. However, it can go the other way around as well: developing a guilt complex can lead someone to develop these mental health disorders as well.

  • Anxiety disorders: Guilt complexes can cause people to be extremely self-conscious and fearful of interacting with others. It causes people to be very afraid of committing another mistake. It can, therefore, lead to anxiety disorders.
  • Depression: Guilt can cause sadness, loneliness, low moods, and a notable lack of energy or motivation to do anything. Additionally, it causes one to lose interest in past hobbies or passions. This is depression in a nutshell.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): People with guilt complexes can experience a barrage of intrusive thoughts. It may also lead them to be obsessed over the minor details of interactions. Extreme cases of such might be cases of OCD.
  • Dysphoria: Dysphoria refers to a deep, intense malaise one feels about oneself. In layman’s terms, it’s when someone dislikes themselves on a profound level. Guilt produces shame, insecurity, and self-hatred—or, psychologically speaking, dysphoria.

How to deal with guilt and guilt complexes

While feeling guilt is normal and even often healthy, it can also be a slippery slope. It’s important not to let oneself be consumed by guilt, or it can impede one’s overall wellness.

If your feelings of guilt become too extreme to overcome on your own, it’s important to seek professional help. They can help you make peace with your guilt through a variety of methods:

Medication

Suppose the root cause of your guilt complex is an underlying mental health condition like depression, anxiety, or OCD. In that case, a psychiatrist may prescribe appropriate anti-depressants or other medication to help in your recovery.

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT for short, is a form of psychotherapy. It focuses on developing one’s ability to recognize and understand thoughts and emotions, allowing the patient to better handle them.

In essence, the goal of CBT is for patients to be able to control their emotions rather than allowing their emotions to control them.

This is useful for people with guilt complexes because it can help them better understand that their emotions may be misguided. It allows them to realize that their guilt is likely unfounded, for they are not responsible for the event they are guilty about. 

Coping strategies

However, if you are unable to seek professional help in the meantime, these self-help strategies can prove effective as well:

  1. Identify what makes you feel guilty: First and foremost, it’s important to analyze why you feel guilty. While you feel guilty about something, if other people tell you it’s not your fault, they may have a point. If you find yourself feeling guilty about several things, try identifying a pattern between these guilt-triggering events.
  2. Develop self-awareness: When feeling guilty, it’s easy to spiral into thoughts of the things you “could have” or “should have” done. However, these thoughts may stem from your own blind spots. A healthy sense of self-awareness can help you see things from different perspectives, which may help reduce feelings of guilt.
  3. Express it: For most people, talking about one’s feelings with a trusted friend or loved one can be cathartic. They can also offer you their own insight. If you don’t have anyone to talk to right now, try journaling in the meantime.
  4. Talk to the person you wronged: This can be extremely difficult if you feel guilty, but talking to the person you think you wronged can help with your guilt complex. Three things can happen: (1) they might explain to you why it wasn’t your fault; (2) they can express forgiveness; (3) they can tell you ways you can take accountability and atone for your mistakes. All three outcomes can lead to the alleviation of guilt.
  5. Be kind to yourself: Remind yourself that you’re simply human. Everyone makes mistakes! Remember that constantly berating yourself and self-flagellating isn’t productive nor is it productive at the end of the day.
  6. Treat it as a lesson: If you did do something wrong, it’s important not to minimize the effects of your actions as simply being a lesson. However, you should still see how you can use this experience as a way to improve yourself. Remember that we’re defined not by our failures but by how we rise back up from them.

The bottom line

We’ve all made mistakes, and we’ve all felt guilty in one way or another at some point in our lives. 

While it can be a crucial and productive step towards self-betterment, extreme guilt can also prove to be even more destructive to both oneself and those around them.

It’s therefore important to identify why you feel guilty. Then, you must learn how to deal with it and move forward towards a healthier future. 

At the end of the day, we must learn how to forgive ourselves and do better. It’s the best way we can make up for our mistakes.

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Tina Fey

I'm Tina Fey, the founder of the blog Love Connection. I've extremely passionate about sharing relationship advice. I've studied psychology and have my Masters in marital, family, and relationship counseling. I hope with all my heart to help you improve your relationships, and I hope that even if one thing I write helps you, it means more to me than just about anything else in the world. Check out my blog Love Connection, and if you want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter

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