Guilt: Causes and How to overcome Guilt

Guilt is a major emotion that can throw one off balance. One moment, you are okay, the next, you feel so bad. Sometimes guilt comes with feelings of unworthiness and self-punishment. Everyone has felt guilty one way or the other. It’s part of the thing that makes us human.

According to Wikipedia, “Guilt is a cognitive or an emotional experience that occurs when a person believes or realizes—accurately or not—that he or she has compromised his or her own standards of conduct or has violated a universal moral standard and bears significant responsibility for that violation”.

It’s normal to feel guilty when you have done something wrong. If you don’t feel guilty after you do something wrong, it may be a sign of psychopathy. Beating yourself over the guilt is where the problem lies. Often, we want to be liberated from this guilt and so we tend to punish ourselves harder than normal, we tend to over-compensate for our wrongs. For example, if you missed a close friend’s birthday that they had repeatedly reminded you of, you will feel guilty. Also, because you feel guilty, you might over-compensate by buying him/her an expensive gift or always being so nice throughout the week and so on. Why would you do that? It’s because you feel bad, you feel guilty and you want to make up for it.

In small doses, guilt can benefit us. But when it runs free, it can cause havoc.


Guilt, guilty
Illustration of guilt attacks by Yuan Pan

Michael J. Formica described guilt as an attachment to judgment. In his article, he wrote that

if you are guilty, it is because you are attached to judgment, and that judgment is coming from outside of you. You are going outside of yourself to define who you are and, by association, how you behave, rather than relying on your internal mechanisms of decision making and self-regulation.

I believe feeling guilty can come as a result of crossing moral standards or ethical codes. For instance, robbing someone can make you feel guilty. Why? This is because you know it’s not right to rob someone and so your conscience begins to prick you. It might not even be in the form of stealing or killing and the rest. It might be in other things such as compromising your integrity, being dishonest and the likes.

Guilt, guilty
The persistence of guilt by David Ezziddine

What makes one feel guilty is mostly the conscience. Sometimes, you might not have really compromised moral standards but might have done something and your conscience tells you, “Oh no, you are wrong”. What does that mean? It means that every human being has a sense of good and bad, wrong and right. It might not necessarily be because you are a Christian or a Muslim and so on.

“Question: Is good and bad or wrong and right relative? Who makes the rules?”

Apart from crossing moral standards, there are other causes attached to guilt and would be discussed below.

Causes of Guilt

The following are the cause of guilt according to Susan Krauss Whitbourne

  • Guilt for something you did. An example is feeling guilty because you stole, slapped someone or killed someone. Basically, it’s feeling guilty for something you did and you know it’s wrong.
  • Guilt for something you didn’t do, but want to. Ever felt like doing something, probably hurting someone but you didn’t eventually go through with it? However, you feel guilty because you even thought about it. Well, this is what this point is about. It might not necessarily be about hurting someone.
  • Guilt for something you think you did. Sometimes one can feel guilty for things they didn’t even do. Perhaps they were made to believe that they caused something to happen and they feel guilty about it when in fact it is not their fault. It’s here that I think guilt can be an illusion.
Guilt Guilty
Concept of psychological self-punishment
  • Guilt that you didn’t do enough to help someone. This is a popular one. I get that sometimes too. For example someone needed money to buy admission form, let’s say its five thousand naira. They came to you for help, you very much had the money but you have always wanted to get a shoe, dress or whatever. So you just give the person two thousand naira, hoping he/she can ask someone else for the rest. Unfortunately, he/she couldn’t raise the money and couldn’t gain admission that year. Now, if I’m the one, I’d feel guilty because I’d feel like I was selfish, knowing that I could have helped the person with the whole money for the form but then again, not everyone would feel guilty.
  • Guilt that you’re doing better than someone else. Susan termed this as “Survivor guilt” she explained that

 Survivor guilt also occurs when people who lose families, friends, or neighbors in disasters themselves remain untouched or, at least, alive… First-generation college students, for example, often feel torn by conflicting emotions about their success in school. They want to do well (and their families want them to also), but the students themselves feel guilty that they are getting opportunities that their parents or siblings did not.

Guilt, guilty
An art depicting survivor guilt by Kristen Brown

“Question: When you keep doing something over and over again, what happens to the conscience? Are there still feelings of guilt?”

Guilt affects us in many ways. Unresolved guilt according to Guy Winch “is like having a snooze alarm in your head that won’t shut off”. This is because somehow, it still dwells in your mind and you keep thinking about it.

Read also: Everyone tells a story differently

Guilt makes it difficult to think objectively. It also makes you overcompensate and self-punish. This is because when you do something wrong, you feel unworthy of good things and so you feel you need to be punished to get past it. Talk about over-compensating. For example, if you mistakenly hit a father of 2 kids with your car and he dies, you feel guilty because of the kids and can over-compensate by sending money all the time to them. You feel like you want to make it better and also at the same time, you are paying for your sins.

Feeling guilty makes you strive to make life ‘right’. You may overwork, give too much of yourself, or be willing to do anything in an attempt to make everyone happy

-Diana Lalor

Guilt, guilty
Art illustration by Paweł Jońca

Guilt also makes you reluctant to enjoy life. It makes you feel undeserving and it makes you feel the need to avoid people you offended. It can make you depressed and according to Guy Winch, “guilty feelings make you feel literally heavier and more belabored”. Excessive guilt is one of the biggest destroyers of self-esteem, individuality, creativity and personal development (Maud Purcell).

How to resolve guilt

The following are how to resolve guilt according to John M. Grohol.

  • Recognize the kind of guilt you have and its purpose
  • Make amends or changes sooner rather than later
  • Accept you did something wrong, but move on
  • Learn from your behavior
  • Realize that perfection doesn’t exist in anyone

One other thing we should realize is that sometimes, what we feel guilty about or beat ourselves over might be something so inconsequential. People might not have taken it the way you did. An example is insulting a friend. It may have hardly penetrated that friend’s consciousness.

Guilt upon the conscience, like rust upon iron, both defiles and consumes it, gnawing and creeping into it, as that does, which at last eats out the very heart and substance of the metal

-Robert South

What do you think of guilt?

Let me apologize for not delivering on May’s ViewPoint. A lot of things were just not working out at that moment, so I have decided to move it to June. Don’t worry, I won’t disappoint this time, I’ve already drafted it and can’t wait for y’all to read it. Thanks for your patience guys, I love you.

Meanwhile, you can connect with me on facebooktwitter and instagram @theroyaldeviant Also, don’t forget to subscribe, to get more of these kind of contents right in your mail box.


  1. Ah Nakas you did real research here! This is so true and relatable! Guilt issa scam. Like you keep punishing yourself when the offended has forgiven its pitiful! And we Christians do that a lot with God he’s forgiven but we judge ourselves.

    You ask who sets the standard or right and wrong. Well ultimately it’s God but in this age and time, it can be culture, friends, etc

    May 22, 2018
    • Nakas said:

      That’s true Deshi. Especially when it comes to God too. I’m actually going to do a post on that too.

      You are right about who sets the standard of right and wrong. It’s God but then again, it’s quite difficult in this world today.
      Thanks for your comment dear

      June 4, 2018

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.