It’s normal to sometimes wish we had handled a situation differently, and to experience guilt around a negative outcome. But what if that guilt never really dissipates? Understanding the causes of excessive guilt and how to treat it is important in moving past our mistakes.
We have all experienced the sickening feeling of guilt, the moment when we know we’ve done something wrong, or hurt someone we loved. This powerful emotion helps propel us back to our own deeply-established moral code, motivating us to atone and learn from our mistakes. In the right context, guilt is constructive, allowing us to move forward in a way that is aligned with our ethics and the needs of those around us.
However, when guilt is persistent, or felt over even small mistakes, this can be a sign of a condition known as excessive guilt. Linked to several types of mental health conditions, excessive guilt is destructive and negatively impacts one’s overall outlook. Understanding excessive or irrational guilt is important in identifying problematic patterns of thought and seeking solutions to improve your quality of life.
What is Excessive Guilt?
Excessive guilt occurs when you regularly experience feelings of guilt over doing something that you perceive as being wrong, or over something you think you might do wrong in the future. This irrational guilt is typically accompanied by other feelings like anxiety, shame and worry. People with excessive guilt are often stressed, and feel like they have failed somehow.
Some physical and emotional signs of excessive guilt include:
- Frequent crying
- Stomach upset
- Low self-esteem
- Fixation on old mistakes
- Fear of making the “wrong” decision
- Sleeping troubles
- Putting others first and ignoring your own needs
- Muscle tension
Types of Excessive Guilt
Excessive guilt is experienced in different ways. Some commons forms of guilt include:
- Naturally-occurring guilt – spurred by a genuine mistake or a wrong you have committed, naturally-occurring guilt is a normal response. This emotion drives us to resolve our past transgressions and grow from our mistakes. However, if circumstances or your mental state do not allow these feelings of guilt to be properly addressed, this may result in lingering feelings of guilt that can ultimately be damaging to your mental health and relationships with others.
- Guilty thoughts – everyone has transgressive or taboo thoughts from time to time that are immediately recognised as inappropriate and never acted upon. However, some people can develop extreme feelings of guilt about these, as well as fears that their thoughts will be discovered by others or that they may one day act upon them.
- Existential guilt – it is possible to experience guilt about your situation in comparison to loved ones or people that are less fortunate, or feel guilty about not living in line with your principles. Existential guilt can also manifest as survivor’s guilt, when you feel guilty about escaping a situation unharmed while others suffered ill-effects.
- Maladaptive guilt – this type of guilt occurs when you feel guilty about something that is beyond your control, such as failing to prevent something that you had no ability to predict. People with maladaptive guilt have a difficult time accepting that there was nothing they could have done to change an action, and struggle with shame and regret as a result.
Causes of Excessive Guilt
While naturally-occurring guilt is often linked to a specific event or situation, excessive guilt stems from deeper issues involving a reaction to the environment in which one lives, or a mental health condition. Causes of excessive guilt can come from:
- A religious upbringing in which guilt is used to guide behaviour
- A lifestyle at odds with cultural norms
- Childhood trauma or abuse
- Feeling unfavorably judged or pressured by others
- Anxiety and other mental health disorders
It may be difficult to discern the cause of excessive guilt on your own, and reaching out to a mental health specialist can be useful in identifying and addressing where your guilt is coming from.
How Does Excessive Guilt Link to Mental Health Conditions?
Excessive guilt can both contribute to the development of a mental health condition, and be a product or symptom of a mental health issue. Excessive guilt is linked to several different mental health disorders, and should be taken seriously as an indicator of a deeper issue.
Anxiety and Excessive Guilt
Anxiety and guilt are closely intertwined, as anxiety disorders often lead to persistent feelings of fear and worry that can precede or exacerbate guilt. Feeling guilty can also create other symptoms like stomach problems, insomnia, muscle tension, and racing thoughts that may feed into long-term anxiety issues.
Depression and Excessive Guilt
Depression and excessive guilt also feed off of each other, sometimes making it difficult to discern what came first. People with depressive disorders often find it challenging to maintain a positive outlook or perspective, which can lead to frequent feelings of guilt around situations they feel went badly. Guilt can also make people feel depressed and hopeless, particularly if there doesn’t appear to be a way to resolve it.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Excessive Guilt
Constant feelings of guilt over something you did or said can result in many of your daily thoughts and actions focusing on your perceived wrong and ways to potentially rectify it. This obsessive thinking may make it difficult to concentrate on other tasks, or to create emotional availability for interpersonal relationships.
People with obsessive-compulsive disorder also struggle with guilt. For people who have taboo thoughts as part of their OCD, they may feel guilt over these intrusive and unwanted thoughts. Those who feel compelled to perform certain actions, like checking the locks, may feel guilty if they are prevented from doing so.
How to Treat Excessive Guilt
If you are plagued by guilt and cannot find a way to resolve your feelings, it is important to talk to a mental health specialist. Left untreated, excessive guilt can cause mental distress that is disruptive to your daily life as well as persistent physical discomfort. Understanding the root cause of your guilt, and identifying ways to manage and cope with it is critical in regaining your quality of life. Having a therapist who can help diagnose any underlying mental health issues is essential in getting the right kind of treatment.
Psychotherapy, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, is effective in helping people identify and analyse negative patterns of thought, as well as developing new healthy patterns and habits. This can be instrumental in helping to address the complex feelings that accompany excessive guilt, and building positive thinking and reinforcement.
Overcoming Excessive Guilt at The Dawn
The Dawn Wellness Centre and Rehab is a mental health retreat in Thailand created to foster an environment of personal growth and healing for people who want to change their lives and overcome mental health issues, including addiction. The Dawn treats a range of mental health conditions, including:
Licensed by the Thai Ministry of Health and internationally accredited by the American Accreditation Commission International (AACI) ,The Dawn offers tailormade treatment plans that cater to each individual’s needs by using a comprehensive, holistic treatment method and modern techniques with proven results.
A Mental Health Retreat in Thailand
Our centre is conveniently located just outside the beautiful city of Chiang Mai, Thailand, a one-hour flight from the country’s capital of Bangkok. At our tranquil riverfront property, surrounded by picturesque rice fields and traditional Thai villages, you are completely removed from your triggers and immersed in a safe and soothing environment.
The Dawn offers comfortable accommodation amidst lush, tropical gardens. Clients can recover in a relaxed, cosy ambience and truly focus on themselves. Each client is given a private room and access to resort-style facilities including WiFi, a swimming pool, sauna, meditation studio, and fitness centre.
If you’re struggling with irrational guilt and aren’t sure how to move on, call The Dawn today to learn more about how we can help.