Guilt can be a tool for growth, but it can also be erosive and paralyzing when it’s felt too much. Sometimes, people can experience guilt for situations or events that aren’t their fault, or even have nothing to do with them. In some cases, this can be due to something called a guilt complex.

Guilt complexes often develop over time, but can be very deeply rooted, and thus hard to work through on one’s own. Read on to learn what a guilt complex is, what it does, and how it can be treated.

What Is a Guilt Complex?

A guilt complex is a persevering impulse to believe that one has done something wrong that affects a person’s attitudes and actions. Guilt complexes can appear as paranoia or anxiety due to the fact that they will often persist despite assurances from others that they are actually in good standing. 

A guilt complex is a consistent impulse to believe that you've done something wrong that influences your attitudes and actions.

Why Do I Always Feel Guilty for Everything?

Guilt refers to an emotion one experiences when one feels as though they have done something wrong—whether accurate or not. If you notice that you experience guilt persistently it may help to start at the most obvious place: Are you sure what you’re feeling is guilt, and what do you think you did wrong? 

Guilt can occur as a result of traumatic events. Traumatic events have been linked to persistent feelings of guilt as well as simply causing one to be more prone to pervasive guilt, as it is associated with having a high sensitivity to negative feelings. Undue amounts of depression or even anxiety can also cause someone to feel excessive guilt, often providing one with various reasons as to why that guilt is justified when, in reality, it might not be.

Sometimes the “guilt” we feel is actually shame, though it presents itself in similar ways. The biggest difference between shame and guilt is that with guilt, you feel bad for something you’ve done, whereas with shame, you feel bad for who you are. If you feel like you’re constantly filled with a feeling like guilt, it would make sense if the feeling was actually shame, as it’s hard to get away from the parts of yourself that are causing you to feel ashamed.

If you find that you’re actually feeling shame, think about what part of yourself it could be directed toward and whether the thought behind the feeling is helpful or not. The perspectives we subconsciously hold onto about ourselves can cause a great deal of shame without us even realizing the harm it’s doing.

Identifying the truth of what’s wrong requires that judgment is temporarily pushed aside, and allow it to give way to a moment of courage. Sometimes the answer you’re looking for is on the other side of the guilt, and only by going through it (with sufficient support) will you start to help you feel better. 

What Are the Symptoms of a Guilt Complex?

Though guilt complexes aren’t recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), there are certain symptoms that are commonly seen in people with guilt complexes. People experiencing the effects of a guilt complex may face symptoms like:

  • Rumination or preoccupation with mistakes
  • Obsessive tendencies, such as seeking consistent reassurance or reconsidering past misdeeds
  • Decreases in sleep
  • Anxious, worried, or depressed feelings
  • Isolation or social withdrawal
  • Lowered self-esteem and self-worth
  • Cryings spells
  • Stomach discomfort
  • Muscle tension
  • Distress
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue

If you are experiencing these symptoms, whether they are related to a guilt complex or another unknown condition, consider seeing a mental health professional. They can assess your symptoms, help you work through what’s causing them, and work with you to create a treatment plan that works for you.

How Does a Guilt Complex Develop?

Guilt complexes are indeed complex, and not generally caused by a single factor. They can develop due to a number of conditions, including: 

  • Cognitive dissonance
  • Perfectionism
  • Religious affiliation
  • Unclear or misunderstood expectations (from culture and/or society)
  • Childhood trauma
  • Overinvolvement with highly sensitive people
  • Effects of a mental health disorder (such as depression or anxiety)

Because of this, the best way to reduce the negative effects of a guilt complex is to find and treat the root cause of the issue.

Sources state that guilt complexes can originate in childhood. People who are prone to perfectionism or high personal standards may be susceptible to the development of a guilt complex.

Can Guilt Cause Psychosis?

Guilt has not been officially identified as a cause of psychosis; however, in rare and extreme cases, guilt can cause enough emotional distress that psychosis occurs. 

Psychosis refers to a less common mental state where a person has difficulty with high brain functioning—most commonly, distinguishing themselves between reality and fantasy. Psychosis can present itself in many ways—it can look like delusions, hallucinations, or disorganized speech.

If you or a loved one is experiencing bouts of psychosis, it’s important to see a mental health professional about your symptoms so that they can be treated.

What Mental Disorder Causes Extreme Guilt?

If a person is experiencing extreme guilt and is diagnosed with a mental health condition, it’s most likely associated with an anxiety disorder, depressive disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, trauma, or other stress-related disorders.

Common reasons that people with these conditions might feel inordinate amounts of guilt include:

  • Anxiety disorders: Someone with an anxiety disorder may experience an increase in guilt because they’re attempting to protect themselves or others by setting high standards and experiencing guilt because they feel like they are failing, letting down either themselves or others.
  • Depressive disorder: There’s a symptom of depression called “inappropriate guilt.” This refers to experiencing guilt for something you had nothing to do with. People experiencing a depressive episode often report feeling guilty and not knowing why; this becomes especially complex when the guilt is experienced alongside happiness.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder: People with OCD may experience an increase in anxiety due to intrusive thoughts. These intrusive thoughts can allow a momentary issue to evolve into persistent worry without bounds. The act of engaging in those thoughts for some people starts a cycle of guilt regarding thoughts.
  • Trauma: People who experience trauma are especially vulnerable to guilt, specifically survivor’s guilt. This is especially true for direct experiences such as natural disasters, war, or domestic or sexual crimes. It is also true for first responders, professionals who are exposed to traumatic events/stories, siblings (one disciplined less harshly), a loved one experiencing difficult news, and so forth.

How Do I Stop Obsessive Guilty Thoughts? How Do I Stop Obsessing Over Regrets?

Regrets can be hard to work through, especially if they feel inescapable due to intrusive thoughts about them. One therapeutic approach that helps quell obsessive thoughts is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a form of therapy that targets unhelpful thoughts and unwanted behaviors by changing the way we think and act. Some CBT interventions that are helpful for decreasing intrusive or inappropriate thoughts include:

  • Cognitive restructuring: This is the signature intervention for CBT. Cognitive restructuring is a process that helps recognize unhelpful thoughts, challenge them, and change them so they are useful and reasonable.
  • Exposure and response prevention: This involves structured and gradual exposure to the distressing situation or thought, followed by a self-enforced restraint from indulging in the compulsive behavior.
  • Mindfulness: In this technique, the learner is taught to be aware of all that is currently happening (thoughts, feelings, etc) and by doing so, they are better able to avoid automatic unhelpful responses like obsessing or rumination.
  • Reframing: This refers to looking at a problem from another perspective. Through the reconceptualization process, a person is better able to identify alternative solutions to show how the original form of thinking is self-defeating.
  • Fact-checking: This reminds the sufferer that “thoughts aren’t facts.” While thoughts are very influential, they should be considered as suggestions or even reflections of a belief system, not the ultimate truth. Fact-checking involves distinguishing between what is true and what is an opinion or open to interpretation, which can be helpful for reducing thoughts about regret or guilt.

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How Do I Get Rid of My Guilt Complex?

To lessen the frequency or severity of your guilty feelings, it may be helpful to consider talking to a mental health professional with a focus on changing your perspective or improving your emotional response. Some of the things you can implement and incorporate into your life to help you manage a guilt complex are:

  • Self-awareness: This refers to your knowledge or awareness of your needs, desires, thoughts, and feelings. Self-awareness is the first step in knowing about yourself and gaining insight into what behaviors you may be predisposed to, which can help you learn whether there are any thoughts or beliefs that have an incompatible relationship with your moral standard, thus resulting in feelings of guilt.
  • Positive self-talk: This refers to motivational internalized speech intended to increase your self-worth and improve internal functioning. This can help with acceptance, helping you believe that you can do a negative behavior that hurt or offended someone and still think positively about yourself as a whole person.
  • Compassion: This refers to intense sympathetic feelings for someone else’s distress, usually accompanied by an impulse to help. This can help you move forward, both through having compassion for others and yourself. Compassion can help you find the balance of your perspective of your accountability in matters, and thus balance your emotional reactions to them.

The intense guilt tied to guilt complexes can be difficult to overcome on your own. If you are dealing with a guilt complex or an unknown emotional or mental issue, consider seeking guidance from a mental health professional. They are the most well-equipped to help you work through what you’re feeling and learn how to manage your emotions.

Table of contents

What Is a Guilt Complex?

Why Do I Always Feel Guilty for Everything?

What Are the Symptoms of a Guilt Complex?

How Does a Guilt Complex Develop?

Can Guilt Cause Psychosis?

What Mental Disorder Causes Extreme Guilt?

How Do I Stop Obsessive Guilty Thoughts? How Do I Stop Obsessing Over Regrets?

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  • Donohue, M. R., Tillman, R., Perino, M. T., Whalen, D. J., Luby, J. L., & Deanna, M. (2020). Prevalence and correlates of maladaptive guilt in middle childhood. Journal of Affective Disorders, 263, 64–71.

  • Lake, C. R. (2008). Hypothesis: Grandiosity and Guilt Cause Paranoia; Paranoid Schizophrenia is a Psychotic Mood Disorder; a Review. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 34(6), 1151–1162.

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