All day, every day, we all experiences hundreds of emotions. Some are positive, some are negative, and all serve a purpose.

Emotions prompt us into action by organizing and motivating our response. Emotions can be broken down in a number of ways. All emotions start with a prompting event, which is then interpreted.

For example, if you lose your job, you may interpret that to mean several things, such as: “I did not perform my duties well.” This interpretation prompts internal changes within our body, such as increased heart rate, becoming flushed, or shaking. These internal responses also lead to action urges, which we then act upon, such as crying, yelling, or escaping the situation.

After we act, there are after-effects, such as feeling distracted. This process generally happens very quickly, and can be categorized as sadness or anger.

Primary Versus Secondary Emotions:

A primary emotion is a direct reaction to a prompting event.

Secondary emotions are those we feel about our primary emotions.

For example, after failing a test, a person may feel disappointed. However, if the person feels guilty for then letting his or her parent down for failing the test, guilt is the secondary emotion because it is guilt about the disappointment.

What is Guilt?

Guilt is one of the most complex emotions that we feel. It is almost always a secondary emotion in response to a primary emotional response. Guilt is often a response to a perceived decrease in a social standing. Guilt often motivates behavior related to social expectations in that it “punishes” us for socially unacceptable behavior.

What Does Guilt Feel Like?

Guilt can be categorized by the following feelings, according to Emotional Competency:

  • Feeling badly about your actions
  • Failure to meet another’s standard of behavior

  • Transgressing a moral imperative
  • Having empathy but not acting from empathy
  • Dissatisfaction from our assessment of a decrease in social acceptance or contribution
  • Failing to prevent harm to another
  • Not meeting your responsibility to others

Guilt Cycle:

These emotions continue, providing the following guilt-cycle:

Starting at a neutral state, an incident occurs in which you fail to meet your own standards, others’ standards, or there is a dissatisfaction based on your own assessment. Guilt is the feeling that corresponds with the interpretation of the incident.

To Remediate Guilt:

In order to remediate your guilt, the following are recommended:

Accept Responsibility: Feel remorse, understand what you did wrong, and take responsibility

Remorse: Genuinely feeling bad about what has happened, assess the situation

Restitution: Improve and avoid future mistakes, apologize, and make appropriate reparations to injured parties.

Failure to do so may lead to inaction or denial, in which the other party or other circumstances are blamed.

Three Types of Guilt:

Healthy Guilt: The result when you knowingly have done something wrong. Process of self-evaluation and correction

Unhealthy Guilt: The incorrect belief that everything wrong is your fault. This leads to perfectionism and low-self esteem.

False Guilt: This is often experienced by victims of abuse (physical, sexual, and mental), violent crimes, and survivor’s guilt. This is the erroneous belief that a person is somehow responsible for a circumstance outside that person’s control.

Other Areas of Guilt:

While guilt has been applied in a general sense, there are several other areas in which guilt is present.

For example, people often hold themselves accountable to a higher standard than they would others. This creates a situation in which a person may feel guilty, rather than forgiving themselves as they would others. This also occurs when a person believes incorrectly that all mistakes or negative consequences are preventable.

People also frequently feel guilt associated with loss and bereavement. Feelings that you could have done more, that you should have saved someone, or that you should have said or done something before a death is common. It’s a perception and reaction to feelings that we have failed in our obligations, or that we have done something wrong.

However, understanding that feelings of guilt are a normal part of grief is helpful, in that we all ask “what ifs” and “why” questions. Finally, guilt may be a part of a victimization experience, such as combat, PTSD, and violent crime.

How Can I Manage Guilt and Start to Heal?

  • Learn to recognize and identify your feelings of guilt.
  • What type of guilt is it?  Healthy, unhealthy, or false?
  • What was your role in the wrong-doing, either to yourself or others? Acknowledge and accept it.
  • Does feeling guilty provide you with any positive experiences?  Are you learning from it?  Are you helping others because of it?
  • Ask for forgiveness from those you have wronged (this includes forgiving yourself).
  • Learn from the situation so you don’t repeat the same mistakes.
  • Realize you can't change the past. Let go of it and move on.
  • Disarm thoughts of guilt by thinking or saying "STOP!" and then finding a distraction.
  • If your spiritual beliefs include belief in a higher power, think about what He or She has to say about forgiveness.
  • Participate in an appropriate support group.
  • Be gentle with yourself. What would you say to your best friend in a similar situation? Say the same to yourself.
  • Remember the good things you've done. Write those things down, hold onto them and read them when you need to.
  • Channel your guilt into a worthwhile project. If you've learned a lesson from this experience, chances are others can learn from it, too.

Related Resource Pages on Band Back Together:



Emotional Boundaries

Emotional Regulation








Survivor's Guilt

Guilt Resources:

Emotional Competency - description of guilt, the cycle of guilt, and guilt resolution

Guilt and Forgiveness - group discussions on guilt and the role of forgiveness in guilt.

Loss and the Burden of Guilt - guilt and grief or loss. Lots of good tips and pointers.