If you do something wrong, whether deliberately or accidentally, you will feel bad about it.  That is guilt.  You have transgressed a rule and so are guilty of wrongdoing and you feel bad about it as you have failed to live up to your own or others expectations of you.  However, you may not accept the rule you have broken as binding on you so although others may regard you as guilty you do not feel guilty.  You may be accused of wrongdoing by others, even as far as being charged in a court of law and you may even be ‘found guilty’ but if in your heart of hearts you know you are innocent and the charges are false, you will not feel guilty.  More likely you will feel anger, dismay and disillusionment but not guilt.  However, pressure from a community that believes you are guilty can overwhelm your inner belief.  You may question your recollection of events or you may be ‘rewarded’ if you accept a guilty verdict.  You may then suppress your inner beliefs for the sake of overpowering social influences.  So you can feel guilty but not be guilty and you can be guilty but not feel guilty.

It can be very confusing but our emphasis is on stress and how guilt can affect that, so it is primarily your own assessment of your guilt or innocence that will be the main consideration.

True guilt

True guilt is when you have done wrong and you know you have, though it may be a secret and you are the only one who knows.  You can have ‘bad thoughts’ without actually putting them into practice, and will feel guilty about it.  You will respond to feelings of guilt by stopping the bad thoughts, resisting the temptation to put your thoughts into action or by trying to repair any harm done by apologizing and by making restitution.   If everybody acts like this, all benefit.  It enhances trust between members of a community if everyone knows that they will not be taken advantage of even when they are not present to protect their own interests. In this way guilt can be a positive and helpful emotion.  It is acting like a social glue that helps to prevent harm and to promptly put right any potential disruption.

This concept underlies the British traditional ideals of sportsmanship and ‘gentlemanly’ behaviour.  Sportsmanship relates to a respect for fairness, courtesy and a sense of fellowship with one’s competitors.  This is illustrated by a golfer who accepts a penalty for moving his ball even though no one else has seen it or a footballer who denies the chance of a free kick as he knows that no foul play occurred.  Similarly, ‘gentlemen’ will behave with integrity, fairness and spontaneous generosity in their business dealings. They will fulfil their promises even when there are unexpected personal costs.

True guilt can hardly cause stress.  If anything it is an antidote for stress as it helps to set boundaries and define good social behaviour.  However, if you brood about the guilt or if you do not forgive yourself for the wrongs you have done, that can cause stress. But that is not directly due to your guilt. Rather, it is due to an introspective personality or the need to forgive yourself and they will be covered elsewhere.

Stress is much more likely to be associated with false guilt.

False guilt

You may feel guilty because you fear you have done something wrong – but are not sure.

You may be afraid to talk about it to clarify your feeling for fear of appearing stupid or for fear of your guilt being confirmed and for fear of having to suffer the consequences that may mean social ostracism, mockery, financial loss, imprisonment or other punishment.  Notice that false guilt is strongly associated with fear, which is a problem in its own right. See Uniquely You/Facing Fear.  False guilt leads to brooding, worry and self-blame.  It is not rational so cannot be pinned down and analysed.  That means you cannot respond to it by resolving the underlying event and move on with renewed self-confidence and repaired relationships.

These differences are summarised in the table.

True Guilt False Guilt
Occurs when you do not live up to the standards you have accepted. There is no rational explanation.
Causes distress, a desire to make amends, and rebuild any damaged relationships. Causes fear, brooding and self-blame.
You know why you feel guilty. You feel trapped in a dark, confusing maze.
When challenged you will listen, consider and respond contritely, though this may take some time to process. When challenged you will react defensively and will avoid trying to find solutions to the problem.
You know you are responsible and accountable for what happened. You feel responsible and accountable for what happened but still feel as if it is out of your control.
The guilt is resolved by facing and/or stopping the behaviour – and taking relevant and appropriate amending action. You are stuck in a cycle of self-judgement.


You can see the entire cycle of actions from beginning to end. There is no recognisable pattern, reason or logic in what is happening.
The situation leads to learning and self-forgiveness. You feel to blame. You may even feel the need to be punished. You conclude that you are a bad person who cannot be helped.
The situation leads a growing sense of self-esteem. Your self-esteem diminishes.

 Guilt as a marketing tool

Inducing guilt is a ploy used by charities to persuade you to support their work (‘how can you possibly ignore this rejected puppy?’ for example) and by government agencies to persuade you to get involved in their latest project (all for the nation’s good, of course) such as adopting a healthy diet or driving more carefully.  Advertisements for products and services also may be designed to make you feel guilty so you will buy their products. Gym adverts may remind you that you do not exercise much and adverts for reusable bags may focus on the environmental damage you cause by using plastic bags.

This is done because research has shown it is effective.  Be aware!  When responding to any advert think not only about the information it presents but also the emotion it seems to be trying to induce in you – as well as guilt this could be shame, fear, or anger.  However, more commonly positive emotions such as friendship, compassion, contentment, and happiness are promoted. Whatever ploy is used be aware that it is an attempt to manipulate you in controlling your choices.

Respond to advertisements with your eyes open so you see the emotional message as well as the factual message.  And remember, you do not have to accept the emotional message, whatever it is.  This is one stress you do not have to accept!

The guilt induced when used as a marketing tool may be a true guilt – but only if you accept that it is true of you in your particular circumstances.  Much more commonly it is a false guilt that engenders fear and anxiety.

Guilt free

One advertising ploy makes much of the word ‘guilt-free’ and that can be a significant cause of stress as the concept has spread to become a belief system.

Ice cream, cakes and desserts that are low in fat, sugar and calories may bepromoted as guilt-free.   Such foods are usually regarded as unhealthy foods that are ’bad’ for you as they cause obesity, heart disease or such like but using the world ‘guilt-free’ implies you can eat the advertised form of such foods with a clear conscience as they will not harm your health.  Many seem to buy into this idea as such adverts are common and the concept of guilt about eating is moving into general conversation sometimes using related words such as sin, cheating, naughty, evil and bad:

‘It is only a small sin if I have just have one cake.’ 

‘It is bad for me, I know, but it was just too tempting.’

‘I do not feel naughty as I am going to the gym later.’

In these situations guilt-free is used as a synonym for healthy; but guilt, sin, bad and such words have moral overtones. Used jokingly on occasion, it is a normal way of dealing with negative behaviour but it is a different matter when such statements are used seriously. Guilt is an emotion you feel when you have committed a crime, broken a rule or offended someone.  Yet eating is a normal function and even though some foods are not as useful as others how can it be a crime to eat them?  Eating is one of the normal pleasures of life but now enjoying a feast or having a food treat has become loaded with negative ideas.  Such negative attitudes are now so pervasive that even if you do not feel guilty about your eating habits you may start to feel guilty because you do not feel guilty!  This negativity about something that should be enjoyable may affect other aspects of your life so you may begin to feel guilty whenever you enjoy yourself even if it is nothing to do with food!  What a crazy world!

There is a real risk that normal activities of life like buying food, eating, having a feast and having celebrations that include food are now strongly coloured with negativity.  That is bad enough for everyone but what about vulnerable teenagers who have a poor body image and are obese or fear they are?   Such a negative view of food can be an added burden and may exacerbate their problems and stress.

Similar to ‘guilt-free’ is the phrase ‘clean eating’ that is used to promotecertain foods that are ‘natural,’  ‘unprocessed’ and ‘healthy’ though there is rarely any scientific evidence presented for such claims. But this implies that any food that is not ‘clean’ must therefore be dirty.  That is another negative association that can create false ideas and perceptions.

These concepts lead you to judge food as being either good or bad, clean or dirty.  That can develop so you then judge yourself based on what you choose to eat. If you eat a salad, you are good, but if you enjoy an ice cream, you are bad – unless it is a ‘guilt-free’ ice cream!  Dare you go back for seconds?  Are you allowed to express appreciation for the taste and texture of food?  It is as if the only way you are allowed to enjoy something is if there is nothing enjoyable about it!  Instead of acting as a positive motivating force, guilt actually leads to feelings of helplessness and lack of control.

Food is not immoral.  It never was.  It never should be.  And nobody is immoral for eating food.

The concept of ‘Guilt-free’ is a form of false guilt.

Guilt as a reaction

Psychologists classify guilt into five categories.  The first is mainly about true guilt, though it may be false guilt, while the rest are much more likely to be false guilt but may refer to true guilt.

Guilt Cause 1: Guilt for something you did.

The most obvious reason to feel guilty is that you actually did something wrong especially when it caused harm to others, whether physical or only emotional harm. You may also feel guilty because you broke your own moral code, especially so if that code is shared by your community.  Guilt over your own behaviour can also be caused by doing something you were determined to avoid (such as smoking, drinking, or overeating). In each of these cases, there’s no doubt that the wrong or harmful behaviour occurred.

It is appropriate, therefore, to feel guilty. That is normal.  Accept it happened, apologize to those you have hurt, and then work on a plan to minimise the risk of doing it again.  If you have broken your own personal standards (such as overuse of alcohol, letting down a friend or being unfaithful to your partner) you will need to accept there is a risk of it recurring. Because of your natural tendency toward selfishness (this affects all us in one way or another), you may assume that others share your low opinion of your behaviour.   However, they may be hardly aware of it as they too are wrapped up in their own self-centredness.

Pause for a moment.  Does this remind you of anything you have done? Reflect on it.  Is it an active cause of your stress?  What do you need to do to resolve the problem and relieve your stress?

Guilt Cause 2: Guilt for something you didn’t do, but wanted to.

This is not about what you have done but what you have considered doing.   You know it would be wrong but you go over it in your mind and weigh up the advantages and disadvantages such as giving you pleasure or there being minimal risk of being caught. The guilt reaction can be as powerful as if you committed the wrongful act.

Pause for a moment.  Does this remind you of anything you have done? Reflect on it.  Is it an active cause of your stress?  What do you need to do to resolve the problem and relieve your stress?

Guilt Cause 3: Guilt for something you think you did.

If you think you did something wrong, you can experience  as much guilt as if you actually committed the act .  It is not uncommon  to feel pleasure when something bad happens to someone you do not like or who has hurt you.  ‘They got their deserts,’ you think, but then you feel guilty. You wonder, ‘Did my bad thoughts toward them bring about their suffering? Did I wish it on them?’  You may argue with yourself that this is illogical but the sense of the supernatural is deeply ingrained in virtually everybody so this is not uncommon.

Be aware too that your memory for past events may be faulty.  It is possible for you to have done nothing wrong at all but to misremember and think that you did, particularly when high emotions are involved or it relates to something that happened in your childhood.

As a child you would have been unable to understand the big picture of the adult world and it is possible that information was withheld from you out of consideration for your youth – or perhaps from thoughtlessness.  You would therefore have come to your own conclusions.  If, for example, you heard your parent say such things as, ‘why do you cause me so much trouble, ‘why can’t you be like your brother/sister’, ‘why did I ever decide to have you,’ it is likely you would understand them at face value and not as a reaction to stress, bad temper and other factors that have nothing to do with you.  But taking those words at face value leads to the inevitable conclusion that you are not wanted or are the cause of your parent’s distress, whatever it is. Your self-esteem and self-worth will plummet and you may grow up with a burden of guilt that is so tangled up in your life, memories and self-understanding you think it is a true description of yourself.

Pause for a moment.  Does this remind you of anything you have done? Reflect on it.  Is it an active cause of your stress?  What do you need to do to resolve the problem and relieve your stress?

Guilt Cause 4: Guilt that you didn’t do enough to help someone.

Someone needs your help, you want to help but circumstances prevent it so you feel guilty. It could be a friend who is ill and needs you to visit or care for them but your employment  takes you away.   On other occasions the need is overwhelming, you can cope with only so much and have to withdraw.  You may be a nurse on duty during a catastrophe but have to take sick leave as nightmares and emotional distress weaken and distract you from playing your part.  You can no longer cope so have to withdraw even though your absence will make it harder for the rest of the team. This is a secondary traumatic stress disorder that is commonly called compassion fatigue.  It is a genuine psychological ‘illness’ but you will still feel guilty.

Pause for a moment.  Does this remind you of anything you have done? Reflect on it.  Is it an active cause of your stress?  What do you need to do to resolve the problem and relieve your stress?

Guilt Cause 5: Guilt that you’re doing better than someone else.

Survivor guilt occurs when people lose families, friends, or neighbours in disasters but they themselves come through unhurt or, at least, alive. It occurs in soldiers who survive active front-line experiences while their mates never make it home.  A more subtle form may affect those who make a better life for themselves than do their family or childhood friends. If you are a first-generation university student, for example, you may feel torn by conflicting emotions about your educational success. You want to do well (and your family will want that for you too) but you feel guilty that you are getting opportunities that your parents or siblings did not. To ‘protect’ your relationship, you may engage in self-destructive behaviour that ensures you fail.  Logic would dictate that your family truly wants you to succeed (and thus bring honour to the family), but this logic is lost on you due to survivor guilt.  Alternatively, you may feel so out of touch with your old life, ashamed or embarrassed by your roots and/or so excited, inspired and distracted by your new experiences and opportunities that you ‘lock away’ the memories and no longer keep in touch. Situations like these can cause a deeply buried emotional layer of stress that causes a stress reaction possibly only a long time later.

Pause for a moment.  Does this remind you of anything you have done? Reflect on it.  Is it an active cause of your stress?  What do you need to do to resolve the problem and relieve your stress?

Mismanagement of Guilt

Before we turn to managing guilt we need to consider how your situation is complicated by the fact that you will have already started to manage it – though mis-management is the bigger issue.  Consider if the following issues are relevant to your situation.


Guilt can be unbearable so to cope you may repress the feeling. That takes concentration and is hard work so you will suffer.  You will worry about what happened and about the risk of being found out. It will affect your sleep causing restless nights, you will dream about it and may have nightmares.  You will have to be on guard in case you let slip anything recriminatory.  Your self-esteem and self-confidence will be reduced or possibly you will become unduly self-confident and controlling.   Your relationships will be tainted with fear of being ‘found out’ so you will find it hard to trust others.  You rationalize or make excuses, even when no one’s challenging you because you are taking more notice of your inner fears than the reality of your situation.

All this means you may have difficulty developing and keeping wholesome and close relationships. These are problems in their own right and may swamp any realisation that repressing your guilt could be an underlying cause.


Do you know the saying, ‘a bad workman blames his tools’?  That is a form of projection. When a job goes badly it is tempting to blame someone or something else rather than accept responsibility for what happened so you make excuses such as:

‘My teachers were no good.’

‘If I had been trained for this task my colleague would not have been injured.’

‘How could I have known there was black ice on the road?’


Guilt can lead to such a low opinion of yourself that you self-harm as a form of punishment. Paradoxically, you may then feel better and less guilty. That can be hard to understand but it happens.  As a consequence you will be inclined to repeat the self-harm whenever your lack of self-esteem becomes too much to contain.  A cycle of guilt, stress, low self-esteem and self-harm then develops and may continue for years.


You avoid certain people or situations because they trigger your guilt memories. You say no to opportunities because you believe you don’t deserve them. You clam up or get defensive.  When you play (and replay) the guilty act in your head, it depresses your mood and drains your energy levels so you will not feel up to coping with life. You will tend to withdraw and make excuses to avoid involvement in your previous activities.

Pause for a moment.  All these mismanagement techniques may help temporarily to ease the way you feel but they do not deal with the underlying guilt.

Have you used any of these techniques?

Think through the incident and consider what changes you need to make to your attitudes and behaviour.

What can you do to improve your ability to handle stress that arises from guilt?

Management of Guilt

Aspects of management have been touched on already so here are some key points.

Make a note of anything you feel guilty about. Which ones are due to true guilt and which to false guilt?

If you are truly guilty of anything you need to face up to it and sort it as otherwise you will brood about it and it will become another layer of stress that will affect your attitude and behaviour making you more susceptible to stress.

Guilt induces loneliness because of shame or fear so counteract that by talking to a caring friend about what happened and your response.

If you feel guilty about harm you have caused to others if at all possible meet them. Share your story and ask their forgiveness.

If you cannot meet, write a letter to them, even if you cannot send it. That might be because they have died, moved away, or it would be far too embarrassing or even dangerous to approach them personally.  The main benefit is in expressing your guilt and seeking to resolve it so the person hurt does not have to know anything about it for you to find relief from your guilt.  Sending the letter is primarily beneficial if there is a possibility of reconciliation.

Prevention is better than cure so act as soon as you realise you are at fault.  The longer you delay active management the worse the situation becomes, the greater the stress and the harder it is to resolve.

Forgive yourself.  This may be difficult and you may feel you do not deserve forgiveness but you need to do this to obtain peace and to move on in your life.

False guilt is associated with fear as the guilt cannot be pinned down and examined.  See if Uniquely You/Facing Fears has anything helpful for you.

Identifying the guilt as false is a huge step forward as then it loses its power over you.  When something else happens to make you downhearted the feeling of guilt may return.  Examine it and reject it. Do not let guilt rule over you.

Have you responded to adverts that appeal to negative emotions or been caught up in the ideas associated with ‘guilt-free’ advertisements?  They can cause slow and subtle changes in your perceptions, beliefs, shopping and eating habits and other aspects of behaviour.  It is a false world, built on lies so inevitably it will be a factor in causing stress in your life.

Examine the evidence for the claims.

Is it based on trials and tests?

Is it accepted and approved by knowledgeable experts in the relevant field?

Is it included in ‘official’ recommendations by respected authorities?

What do the promoters of the idea get out if it?

Could it be done just for their desire for fame?

Are they making a financial profit?

Reflect on how such ideas have affected you.  What aspects of your behaviour do you need to change?  Do you need to adapt your beliefs and attitudes?

It may be helpful to revisit:

Getting started/Techniques for Managing Stress and go to ‘Healthy eating.’

Moving Forward/Changing Habits .

Guilt and God

You may be surprised that you are nearly at the end of this discussion about guilt before God is mentioned.  Some people regard guilt as an entirely religious experience so if you give up religion you give up on feeling guilt.  You are then free to live as you wish.  You can be kind to people if you wish or ignore them and get on with your own life.  You are responsible for yourself, not anyone else so do not accept the concept of guilt.  Simple and straightforward – but very selfish, a sure way to lose friends and wholesome influence.

If you have had a religious upbringing, however, and have not actively rebelled and rejected it the concept of guilt brings God into the equation.  Right into the centre.  Certain failures such as breaking what you consider to be God’s commandments will cause you to feel guilty.  But even when you feel guilty about something that is not a religious event, you may well believe or at least feel afraid, that your wrong-doing is a sin against God.  You may then fear that God will punish you.  That may mean that when bad things happen in your life you assume it is because God is punishing you.  Alternatively, or even in addition, you may be convinced that you will be punished eternally in hell.  As a result, you may feel lost and condemned, though can suppress such feelings for much of the time so can get on with life as best you can in your own strength.

The good news is that there is a way out from the burden of guilt for God is a God of compassion and love. He sets standards – that is true. But he also offers to be with you as your guide and companion to strengthen and inspire you.  God has given you a conscious that sometimes makes you feel guilty.  It is not there to condemn but rather to nudge you toward a better way of living. Confess, repent, do the right thing and move on, forgiven and ready for more adventures in life.

Here are some inspiring word of wisdom that have echoed through the centuries bringing comfort, healing and hope to guilty consciences:

‘Turn your ear to me, O God, come quickly to my rescue; be my rock of refuge, a strong fortress to save me. Since you are my rock and my fortress, for the sake of your name lead and guide me.’

‘Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.’

‘Show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Saviour, and my hope is in you all day long.’

‘God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.’

‘Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.’

‘He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.  Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you, God, are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.’

‘Listen, my son, accept what I say, and the years of your life will be many. I guide you in the way of wisdom and lead you along straight paths.’

And here is a prayer you may wish to pray:


I would like to call you Father-God, but am not sure I can or should.  Maybe I can one day.

But I do like the idea that you are a God of compassion and care and not just a judge to hold me to account when I screw up.

You know the things I feel guilty about already so I will not go into details.

I ask you to forgive me and help me to do better.

Please guide me and lead me in the right way.

Please help me to find the forgiveness and inner healing from all my hurts that I badly need.

For now I will take it that you hear me and you are going to answer my prayer.

Help me to recognise it when it happens.

I look forward to that day.


In Jesus name.


Concluding Reflection

Do not rush on.

Allow time for what you have been studying to sink in, not just into your mind but into your emotions, into your soul.

Go for a walk to relax, reflect and meditate.

Spend time in your Oasis of Calm.

Are there any issues you need to resolve?

Are there any actions you need to take?

Plan how you will resolve your issues and take any necessary actions.

Set your plans into action.

Do not move on until you have dealt with all you need to deal with. Hasten slowly!