Human beings are social and emotional animals, something that is evidenced in our capacity for empathy. Through this ability, which is not exclusive to our species, we can put ourselves in the shoes of other people, understanding how they feel.
But with empathy also comes the ability to feel guilt, an emotion that usually arises when, after having said or done something harmful, we repent and begin to feel bad because we know that we have caused harm to another person, even if we did not want to.
There are several types of guilt according to what is its cause and how it affects us on an emotional level, typologies that we will see in more depth below.
The main types of fault (classified)
The fault is a human feeling that, despite being unpleasant, undoubtedly forms part of our being. There are many things that can awaken us the feeling of guilt, sometimes real and sometimes the product of suspicions and unfounded ideas. There are people who can feel guilty because something inside tells them that they are doing things wrong, despite having no objective reason to believe it.
But why do we feel guilt? The fault (worth the redundancy) is our empathy. People are social and emotional animals. Throughout our lives we go through a whole maturation process in which we learn to feel and handle all kinds of emotions, allowing us to regulate both our own internal states and understand them and know how to see them in other people.
Empathy is what allows us to understand others, being a fundamental aspect of our social life. By understanding how other people feel we are able to establish deep ties, as well as knowing how to relate to them. For example, if we see someone sad, it is normal for us to try to support them, encourage them emotionally. On the other hand, if we see her in a bad mood, we may avoid interacting with her at that moment, since she is not the right one.
But even though we try to treat others in the most appropriate and prosocial way possible, sometimes we don’t. Whether it is because we are in a bad mood or are not aware of what we do and say, it can happen that our actions harm others. It may be hostility, aggressiveness, or simply carelessness, but regardless of what it has been, we have hurt someone’s emotions. At that moment our capacity for empathy makes us feel how the other person feels and, as a consequence, the feeling of guilt appears.
1. Healthy guilt and neurotic guilt
We can say that There are two main types of guilt according to whether the cause that causes it is easily identifiable or not. The ideas of healthy guilt and neurotic guilt drink much of the psychoanalytic theses, being present in the development of the first modern psychological theories.
1.1. Guilt heals
We begin by talking about “healthy” guilt, the one that we can feel on a more daily basis. It is the type of guilt that arises after feeling that someone has been hurt and that, therefore, it has an easily identifiable cause. It is the regret that is felt when we have said or done something that, later, our empathy has made us see that it was wrong to do it.
It is that same empathy that pushes us to repair the damage and prevent it from happening again.. It is in this idea where we can see the functionality of guilt from an evolutionary perspective, motivating us to establish compensatory behaviors, prosocial behaviors to correct the errors that have damaged our social relationships.
It is usually accompanied by attempts to prevent and repair what has been done, since the person knows that he feels bad because he has done something wrong, that the emotional responsibility falls on him and he has a moral obligation to fix the situation, even with a mere apology.
However, sometimes there is no possibility of repairing the damage. This can be a problem, since the work of elaborating guilt can turn these feelings into persecutory guilt, and the impossibility of reparation or elaboration can lead us to seek punishment by way of exoneration, a masochistic behavior that it can aggravate our psychological state.
1.2. Neurotic guilt
From a psychoanalytic perspective, we speak of neurotic guilt when the feelings associated with guilt do not seem to be connected to any causative reality. Despite not knowing the cause of the feeling of guilt, the truth is that guilt is still felt in the form of a heavy burden that accompanies the person who constantly feels guilty.
Since it is not known where this guilt comes from, it is very difficult for the person to get rid of this emotion through compensatory behaviors. Who has he hurt? What have you done? It can be fixed? These questions go unanswered, but you still feel guilty and your life can turn into a nightmare.
It can also happen that you do know what is the cause of your guilt, but there is no human way to make up for anything because he feels bad about something he did in the most remote past of his existence, this is childhood. As children we do things that, as adults, we know are not right and that, despite the fact that we are aware that children are unaware of their actions, we feel bad for those childish things that, although innocent, caused harm to other people such as our parents or siblings.
2. Types of fault according to the cause
Now that we have discussed the two main forms of guilt according to whether the cause is identifiable or, on the contrary, it is very hidden in the layers of the unconscious of the person who feels guilty. Now, we are going to see the four main types of guilt according to what specifically causes them, also commenting on the emotions involved.
2.1. Guilt for not properly preventing
In this type of guilt, those who feel guilty wish they could have avoided the circumstances as they occurred, but they could not.
For this reason, he feels very responsible for the things that happened, so much so that takes responsibility for problems that did not really depend on him and that, therefore, he did not have at any time the ability to solve or avoid.
It is the fault of an internal locus of identity and it produces a lot of anxiety, frustration, depression and feelings of lack of control in your life.
2.2. Guilt for unresolved issues
It is the feeling of guilt arising from issues that are considered to have not yet been resolved and that you do not believe that any solution can be found.
It is the typical guilt that some people suffer during the mourning for the loss of a loved one, feeling that there were pending issues and that death prevented closing them, anger and fights that had not yet been settled with a sincere and pleasant “I’m sorry.”
This is also the guilt you feel for not having been kind and loving enough to that person who is no longer there.. The person regrets very much for not having given more kisses, hugs, signs of affection to show how much he loved that person that death has taken from his side. All this brings with it a lot of sadness, melancholy and frustration.
2.3. Guilt for feeling like you don’t meet expectations
This is the guilt felt by many people raised in environments where the bar was set very high. Everyone wants to meet expectations, but their degree of connection with reality makes them aware that there are certain things that cannot be achieved either due to lack of talent or because, simply, you cannot have everything in this life.
Unfortunately, there are people who demand a lot of themselves, too much. In order to satisfy the desires of their demanding parents, they feel that they must comply with everything and more, but they cannot and that causes them a lot of frustration. They fear rejection, the disappointment of others and, since they have not achieved everything they wanted, they feel like failures.
2.4. Guilt for fear of rebuilding life
Another guilt associated with grief is fear of rebuilding life. Whether you’ve lost someone because of their death or broke up with him or her, many people feel guilty about enjoying life after the outcome of the relationship. They believe that they do not have the right to rebuild their lives or that, if they do, it is as if they betray that person.
Such positive and therapeutic behaviors such as laughing, feeling happiness and joy for having a good day, meeting other people can be seen as inappropriate, something that will make them forget the good time they spent with someone who is no longer there. These beliefs are typical of a person who has a very restrictive concept of love.
And how to make guilt disappear?
The reasons behind our feelings of guilt can be very varied. What makes us feel remorse can be very varied, which implies different possibilities for solutions. Sometimes, you cannot completely eliminate this feeling but you can manage it and, at least, from a more rational perspective, understand that everything in our power has been done to be able to correct the damage that we have (or believe) that we have. done.
By repair we speak of the series of actions focused on repairing the reality that we have altered. In other words, it consists of trying to alleviate the damage that we consider that we have caused, in the form of actions or in words, to other people.
For this we use compensatory behaviors of all kinds, such as apologizing to the victims, paying what we have broken or doing personal favors to that person or people who have felt some kind of discomfort because of us. With the passage of time, our feelings of guilt will diminish.
Elaboration is the phenomenon consists of the psychological work that our mind does, reasoning, understanding, remembering and looking for the relationships between the thoughts that overwhelm us and they cause us these feelings. This strategy of guilt reduction aims to progressively transform the unpleasant experience of guilt into an experience of growth and maturation, leading us to make this feeling less painful.
Elaboration work is essential in any psychological consultation. The feeling of guilt, both with an identifiable cause and when it is not so clear, can be a problem for your mental health and therefore should be treated in the consultation as one more symptom. By helping the patient to elaborate on his guilt, he will be able to obtain faster relief, in addition to learning from what caused it.