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Guilt Complex: What to Understand About This Powerful Emotion

What exactly is a guilt complex? Is it just feeling guilty over one thing, or is it something a little deeper? Power to change is in knowledge. 

guilt complex

Guilt is a strong and confusing thing sometimes. In some ways, guilt is a good thing because it makes us feel bad when we’ve done something wrong. It causes us to rethink our actions in the future, apologizing along the way. However, when guilt goes on for a while, perhaps over no real reason to feel guilt, it becomes a very negative and troublesome issue. This latter situation is a guilt complex.

Living in a constant state of guilt is no fun nor is it healthy for you.

A guilt complex can erode away at your self-confidence, your self-worth, and could even put you at an increased risk of issues such as anxiety and depression.

First things first, you should understand whether it’s a true guilt complex you’re dealing with, or whether it’s just a short-term guilt issue. 

[Read: How to deal with guilt and drop the baggage weighing you down]

What is a guilt complex?

Firstly, let’s look at guilt. Guilt is a reaction to something that has happened or something you’ve done.

For example, if you leave your leg sticking out while you’re sitting on the grass and someone trips and falls over it, you will feel guilty for creating a hazard. You would then apologize and make sure the person is okay. 

Guilt makes you feel bad about what has happened. You want to put it right. Guilt is usually short-lived and will go away after you’ve done what you can to make amends. 

[Read: How to be a mature grown-up and face life like an adult]

So, what is a guilt complex?

A guilt complex is living in what is a very regular or even constant state of guilt. In most cases, a person with a guilt complex doesn’t even know what they feel guilty for. Nevertheless, there is an underlying sense of feeling like you’re responsible for something. It dictates your day and how you feel about yourself. 

Over the long-term, a guilt complex can make you feel far less than yourself. It’s important to identify what is driving the complex, in order to unpick it and free yourself. 

A guilt complex can be caused by a past that you’re harboring unresolved guilt for, resentment over something that has happened before and is then manifesting itself as guilt, or it can be that your self-confidence is low and guilt is simply a side effect.

[Read: Feel guilty all the time? How to find the cause and get rid of it]

Why we experience guilt complex in the first place

One of the psychological theories behind guilt is that it is learned during our childhood years.

For instance, if you were made to feel inadequate as a child, you may develop a guilt complex early on in life, which then continues into your adult years and relationships.

It can also be as a result of a very strict moral code. In that case, you may feel guilt for things that really aren’t your fault anyway. Because your morals are so rigid and tight, you feel like you’re doing things wrong when you’re not. Again, this is often learned during the early years of life.

Experiencing guilt in our everyday lives

There are several types of guilt complexes, and they come from the root cause. For instance, you may do something to someone that you feel guilty about. You might cheat on a partner, but you never get the chance to make amends or apologize with forgiveness offered to you. In that case, the guilt remains unresolved and continues on, manifesting into other areas of life and causing a constant state of guilt.

Another type is false guilt. You think something about yourself and feel guilt for being just that. This is the typical type that is learned during early years and as a result, you feel the need to apologize for yourself and your actions.

Sometimes, a person who has very strict religious beliefs can feel guilty because they struggle with the idea of going against their religion. This fear of doing wrong can often be out of misunderstanding or confusion. 

[Read: How to get rid of false guilt and drop the burden others put on you]

A person who has survived a traumatic event, especially if another person wasn’t so lucky, can also develop a guilt complex. In that case, they struggle with the “why me” side of things; why did I survive and they didn’t? 

Signs of guilt complex

All of these types of guilt complex are as complex as the name, and there should be a lot of deep thinking and care in order to overcome the problem. If you’re looking for the signs of guilt complex to know if you’ve been experiencing this, take a look at these signs below and see how many of them you can relate to.

1. Hypersensitivity to words and actions

A person who is struggling with guilt is likely to be quite sensitive to the words and actions of others. It’s easy to see everything as a personal attack, when in reality it’s not meant that way at all.

All of this stems from the underlying issue. And until it is resolved or managed, a person with a guilt complex is always going to take things very personally and handle things quite emotionally/defensively. [Read: How to stop being so sensitive about everything all the time]

2. Difficulty making decisions

Depending upon where the guilt stems from, a person with a guilt complex is likely to find it hard to make decisions very quickly and may make bad decisions quite easily.

This is because they don’t trust themselves enough to come to the right decision from the get-go. They may ask others around them what they think they should do, rather than just listening to their gut and going for it. [Read: Indecisiveness and why your inability to decide is a decision too]

3. Communication problems

Being wrapped up in guilt, whether false or real, makes it hard for you to really voice your worries, concerns, and whatever is on your mind.

Communication problems are a real issue with someone with a guilt complex. It compounds the issue and makes everything worse because they’re not able to talk things out and overcome whatever drives the guilt. 

4. Low self-confidence and self-worth

One of the biggest signs of someone living in a near constant state of guilt is low self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-worth.

When you’re constantly feeling bad about yourself, beating yourself up about something, and questioning yourself, it will erode away at how you feel about who you are and what you’re doing with your life.

A person with a guilt complex cannot be a happy, outgoing, and confident person. It’s just not possible. [Read: How to gain confidence and turn your life around for the better]

5. Never putting yourself first

A guilt complex drives a person to overcompensate, and that means putting everything and everyone else first. In fact, you’re missing out and not getting your own needs met. This is a way of somehow making amends. Of course, you’re not actually making amends for anything of any real value. All this does is cause you to suffer unnecessarily. 

6. Hiding away from difficult situations

Guilt makes you shut down and hide away. When faced with difficult or emotional situations, a person with a guilt complex is probably going to hide away and wait for the storm to pass.

This isn’t cowardice, it’s a defense mechanism. They employ it to stop themselves from facing the guilt they’re feeling, whether real or not. [Read: How to think positive and reprogram your mind to stay positive]

7. Accepting the blame for things that aren’t your fault

This is another way of overcompensating for whatever is causing the original guilt. By taking the blame for other things, you assume that will make them feel better. Of course, it doesn’t work out that way because in order for a feeling to go away, you need to address it. 

8. Physical symptoms manifesting

Guilt complex can result in physical symptoms in some cases, such as headaches, faster heart rate *when anxiety is involved*, restlessness, difficulty concentrating, and problems sleeping. Appetite can also be affected in some cases too.

Of course, this doesn’t help. When you’re not feeling great on the inside, it’s hard to handle any difficult emotions that come your way. [Read: How to read the signs of anxiety ASAP and handle them better]

9. Looking towards unhealthy coping mechanisms

As a distraction, it’s possible that someone with a guilt complex will look towards unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as smoking, drinking too much, taking drugs, overeating, shopping, etc.

These are all distractions. It is an attempt to take the mind away from how they really feel, but the short-term fixes only exacerbate the sense of guilt even more. 

10. Refusing to take opportunities

I’ve already mentioned that a guilt complex causes a person to hide away. This means refusing to take positive opportunities that may arise. That means they’re always going to be stuck in the same place, in a vicious cycle that shows no signs of slowing down or stopping at all. [Read: Feeling stuck in life? How to change directions and live your dream]

How to overcome guilt complex

Overcoming a guilt complex means first identifying the root cause. This sounds easy, but it’s not. For some people, it’s a little easier. For example, there will be an actual event they can pinpoint which kickstarted the whole thing. In that case, they should focus on that event and try to resolve it, in order to allow the guilt to ease and eventually subside with a little extra work. 

However, for those who can’t really pinpoint an actual event, the way to reduce a guilt complex is much harder. It’s important to acknowledge the guilt as an emotion and not a solid thing in your life. That means it can be overcome.

Explore the source, ask questions, delve deeply, even if it causes you to feel a little upset. Work at a pace that suits you. Only push yourself as far as you feel you can go. This may take a while, but the process is worth it. [Read: How to explain anxiety to someone and do it fearlessly]

Is there anything you need to make amends for? If so, do what you can but accept that you may not receive forgiveness. That’s okay, but you must forgive yourself also. All of this takes time. 

The next step is to learn from the past. What can you do differently in the future? How can you help yourself to feel better and make sure the guilt doesn’t return? Spend some time alone with your own thoughts and make overcoming this issue your biggest priority. 

[Read: How to stop ruminating over the past and live your future]

Overcoming a guilt complex is about deep thinking, forgiveness, and understanding. It’s a process, but it’s one that will be extremely worthwhile in the end.

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Nicky Curtis
Nicky Curtis
Having stumbled from one relationship drama to another throughout her 20s, Nicky is now somewhat of a guru in the crazy world of life and love. Telling it how i...
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