From Guilt to Responsibility

From Guilt to Responsibility
Gema Sánchez Cuevas

Written and verified by the psychologist Gema Sánchez Cuevas.

Last update: 28 July, 2022

Guilt is truly poisonous. Its principal function is to torment people and plague them with anxiety and self-doubt. In the end, it serves absolutely no purpose.

The feeling of guilt can be defined as a perception that one has done, said, thought, or felt something objectionable, according to some sort of system of values.

Guilt leads to blaming and devaluing oneself. In the most serious cases, it feeds suicidal thoughts and actions.

Ultimately, guilt turns people into their own worst enemy, and it gives rise to one’s own little personal hell where the guilty person ends up destroying themselves.

“Like with debts, no other honor comes with guilt but to pay for it.”

-Jacinto Benavente-

sad girl

Different types of guilt

Typical guilt occurs after the transgression of a norm that is considered legitimate. For example, when somebody steals something and knows that they have broken a social and religious law that they believe in.

There are different kinds of guilt that are derived from other types of transgressions against values or norms that are not well defined. For example, someone who feels like they should conform to a determined pattern of success, but cannot achieve it.

In that case, they have accepted as standard, or as “law,” a command that is not explicitly established anywhere, but that most people seem to follow pretty closely.

On the other hand, people can feel guilty  without having done anything that’s considered reproachable. It’s enough for the person to have a thought that they consider reprehensible for guilt to erupt within them.

One example of this is when someone is angry with their mother and has aggressive thoughts towards her, up to the point of not wanting to see her again. Afterwards, when they’ve calmed down, they blame and torment themselves for having let these thoughts enter their mind.

However, the most complex type of guilt is unconscious guilt. People experience feelings and/or thoughts without being completely aware of them. An unconventional sexual desire, or a secret desire to have what others have, for example.

In these cases, the guilt is invisible, but it still acts as a dark force. Feelings of anxiety and sadness develop, but they’re vague and seem to come without reason.

This type of unconscious guilt  is expressed as a search for punishment: the person will do something wrong so they can be punished for it. They arrive late to everything so others will scold them. They forget to do an important job so others will get angry at them.

Responsibility, a complex concept

Everyone should analyze their feelings of guilt as objectively as they can. The first thing to do is to question whether the established system of norms that has been broken is valid or not.

There are many cases in history in which something that is “normal” and “legal” goes completely against the highest of human values. The most extreme case is Nazism, which exalted “racial purity” as the greatest value, even though it really wasn’t.

Those systems of values and norms aren’t there for us to passively follow. Even when they’re broadcast by someone in authority, it’s not healthy to follow them blindly if you don’t understand their meaning, or if you can’t clearly see why they exist.

woman holding a branch

Another decisive factor when it comes to evaluating your guilt is intention. Sometimes people do wonderful things for terrible reasons. And sometimes people violate norms for a reason that has more importance or validity.

A political candidate can give a house to every poor family, and it appears as a dignified act that should be applauded. But we all know that it was secretly just a publicity stunt that has very little to do with their true feelings about poverty.

Unconscious guilt requires more work. Consciously, the person does not feel guilty for anything. But they usually end up paying for things that were not their fault. Or they feel constantly anxious, or an implicit accusation over the mere fact of existing.

In all of these cases, you can see how guilt, by itself, is a completely useless feelingWhen we feel guilty, we’re doing nothing but punishing ourselves and giving ourselves a hard time.

What frees us from guilt is assuming responsibility for the damage we’ve done, when we actually have caused damage. This means repairing the damage in the best way we can.

Tormenting yourself with guilt does not make you a better person. On the contrary, it prevents you from improving. Assuming responsibility for the damage that you’ve caused is the only way to overcome this useless type of suffering.


Images courtesy of Pete Revonkorpi, Benjamin Lacombe and Duy Huynh

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.