Stressor Spotlight: Guilt
We are all familiar with the feeling of guilt. Whether it’s from a minor event like accidentally breaking a family heirloom or doing serious harm to someone, guilt can be an extremely painful emotion.
Ideally, guilt can serve as a positive motivator that inspires us to make amends and avoid similar mistakes in the future. But if we don’t process our guilt and move through it in a healthy way, it can become a heavy burden that wears away at our mental and physical well-being over time.
What is guilt?
Guilt is something we feel after we have done something (or think we have done something) that we perceive to be wrong or “bad.” It is a sense of regret over actions we have taken that caused either real or imagined harm.1 2
Guilt is considered a learned emotion. As we grow and develop, we are taught lessons about what is right or wrong from our families, cultures, education, society, religions, etc. And we end up learning to feel guilty when we do something wrong.
Sometimes people feel guilty about something they have done intentionally like lying, stealing, or cheating, and other times people feel guilty about something they have done unintentionally by accident, like hurting a friend’s feelings. And in some cases people can feel guilty over things they didn’t actually have anything to do with, but that they believe was their fault anyway.
Here are some of the common types of guilt:
- Guilt over something you did on purpose
- Guilt over something you did on accident
- Guilt over something you didn’t actually do, but thought about doing or wanted to do
- Guilt for something you think you did, but in reality aren’t actually responsible for in any way
- Guilt over not doing enough (thinking that you should have or could have done more to help)
- Guilt over being better off than others or over surviving a situation that others did not (survival guilt)3
Guilt vs. shame
Guilt and shame are closely related emotions, but they are different from one another. Here’s a brief distinction between the two:
- Guilt is usually linked to something specific, like a specific action, event, or incident. With guilt, we feel responsible for causing harm by our actions or doing something against our moral standards.
- Shame is more related to feelings of inadequacy about oneself in general. When we feel shame, we have labeled ourselves as inadequate and unable to meet the standards we hold for our ideal self.1 4 5
In essence, shame is about the self; it makes us feel bad about ourselves. Guilt, on the other hand, is about an action (or inaction) for which we feel responsible.
Physiology and function of guilt
When we feel guilt, it affects both our mind and body, and we will often experience various physical and emotional signs and symptoms along with it. Guilt is linked to activity in certain areas of the brain such as the frontal cortex,6 and it is associated with things like anxiety, depression, and OCD as well as feelings of overwhelm, low self-esteem, inability to make decisions, shame, and more.7
Guilt can also be felt in the body. Physical symptoms of guilt include having a hard time sleeping, digestive upset, or muscle tension, for example.7 Many people report that guilt makes them feel heavier, like they are carrying more weight.8
Guilt doesn’t feel good; in fact, we usually see it as something quite negative. But guilt isn’t all bad, and it isn’t all unhealthy. In fact, guilt serves important functions and plays an important role for us as human beings.
The upside of guilt
When we feel bad after making a mistake, whether it was intentional or accidental, it helps us to repair the situation and change our behaviors moving forward so that we are less likely to repeat the mistake in the future. It helps us understand when we have done wrong, and it helps us take responsibility for our actions that cause harm.
Some studies show that the more prone you are to feel guilt, the more trustworthy you are likely to be.9 This lends itself well to forming and keeping strong relationships.
Evolutionarily, guilt makes sense. It helps us stay connected socially. It protects us from harming those around us. It helps us to avoid mistakes that can come at a cost. Ultimately, it helps us to survive and thrive in a social society.5
But guilt can also be detrimental.
The downside of guilt
Sometimes, guilt can become problematic—especially when it becomes magnified, prolonged, or disproportionate to the circumstances or situation. We can become fixated on what we could have or should have done differently, and the guilt can begin to linger and build to the point of physical and emotional distress.6
Chronic guilt can cause physical symptoms in the body and can contribute to other harmful effects like increased self-doubt, self-criticism, decreased self-esteem, and pervasive shame. People who struggle with chronic guilt may also be more likely to struggle with things like anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns.
It is important to recognize when we have done something wrong and motivate ourselves to do better next time. But it is also important to not let guilt fester, fuel shame, and hold us back.
According to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the emotion of guilt has a strong energetic connection to specific parts of the body. It is closely connected to the adrenals and the kidneys. An imbalance of guilt, therefore, can impact these organs negatively. Conversely, a physical issue with the kidneys or adrenals may cause excessive guilt or even a lack of guilt, as both of these states can be unhealthy.
The same relationship applies for the other areas below that are energetically connected with this emotion: the top 4 front teeth (T07, T08, T09, T10) as well as the bottom 4 front teeth (T23, T24, T25, T26).
Another relationship worth mentioning is that guilt is connected to the Earth element. Imbalances in this element can lead to feelings of guilt and shame. Learning to love yourself unconditionally is a good way to restore balance to these feelings that often go hand in hand.
How to cope with and release guilt
Here are some of the top strategies to help you cope with guilt in a healthy way:
1. Name it and acknowledge it
Accepting our emotions as what they are—instead of trying to deny them, push them away, or minimize them—is the first step in moving through a strong emotion.
So slow down and tune in with your mind and body. Notice what is coming up for you. If you are feeling guilty, name it as that. Don’t try to fight it or avoid it.
Acknowledge guilt as a common, human emotion. Remember that the guilt is likely trying to help you and protect you in some way. And as you acknowledge the guilt you are feeling, also remember that it doesn’t have to overwhelm you or take over. It is just a visitor and does not have to stay forever.
2. Explore the guilt and the source of it
Once you’ve slowed down and named what you are feeling, take a moment to explore the circumstances that brought on the feelings of guilt. Is the guilt you are feeling in line with the facts and a healthy response to what happened? Or might you be exaggerating the situation in your mind, with the guilt you are feeling an unhelpful and potentially damaging response?
Try to observe the situation objectively and with curiosity. Consider these points:
- First, identify the facts of the situation. What actually happened? Try to remove assumptions, judgments, interpretations, or generalizations. Just stick to the facts.
- Then, address your role in the situation. To what degree are you actually responsible for the harm done? Do you feel overly responsible for something that happened that you actually had little to do with?
- And finally, get clear on the actual harm caused. You may have built this up in your head, as we tend to exaggerate and overestimate the effects of our actions.
With this information, you can get a clearer picture of the situation to accurately assess the harm done, your role in it, and what you might choose to do in response moving forward.
3. Make amends and take action to repair
Once you have slowed down and taken time to gather a clear perspective on the situation, you can decide what you need to do next. If you find that you have, indeed, done something harmful that has caused hurt in some way, do what you can to apologize, repair, and make amends.
Allow the feeling of guilt to serve as an opportunity to teach you and serve you. Ask yourself what you can do to commit to change moving forward, so that you can do your best to avoid a similar misstep in the future. What would you do differently next time having learned this lesson?
4. Practice self-forgiveness
When we offer an apology to someone we have hurt or harmed in some way, we might hope that we will be offered forgiveness back. But unfortunately, this isn’t always the case, and receiving forgiveness from others isn’t always possible.
And while you can’t control whether or not someone will forgive you, you always have the option to forgive yourself.
Forgiving yourself is essential for processing feelings of guilt and moving forward. If you don’t forgive yourself, you are likely to stay stuck in this place of guilt, unable to let go. And that can lead to a lot of distress and turmoil now and in the future.
So take responsibility for your actions, but at the same time learn to forgive yourself for your mistakes.
5. Focus on self-compassion instead of self-criticism
When we have made a mistake or caused harm (either intentionally or unintentionally), it often sparks a critical voice inside ourselves that tells us how bad, inadequate, and unworthy we are. While you absolutely want to take responsibility for your actions and learn from your mistakes, it is not productive to criticize yourself endlessly and to beat yourself up over and over again.
That’s where self-compassion comes in. Self-compassion is the positive antidote to harmful levels of guilt and shame.
So speak to yourself with compassion, kindness, encouragement, and understanding. Think about how you would treat a friend experiencing a similar struggle. Remind yourself that humans are flawed and imperfect; we can’t expect ourselves to never make mistakes. You are still whole and good, and you are learning and growing each and every day.
6. Get support and talk it out
Holding onto guilt allows it to fester, linger, and grow out of control. It is important to find a safe space to release your feelings of guilt. Whether that means speaking to a family member, trusted friend, or therapist, talking about your guilt is one of the best ways to cope with it and move on.
There are many wellness professionals who can support you in working through guilt and releasing its hold on your body and mind.
How to let go of food guilt
“Food guilt” is a particular form of guilt that can be very prevalent in our society. You’re probably familiar with the feeling of eating something tasty or comforting when feeling tired, upset, drained, or stressed, only to feel guilty about eating it later because that food is considered as “bad,” “unhealthy,” or “junk.”
This is a vicious cycle that can be very destructive; punishing ourselves for our food choices over and over again isn’t good for our bodies, and it isn’t good for our well-being either.
And it turns out that most of the time, food guilt actually backfires on us, making us more likely to make less healthy choices in the future.
Here are a few tips to begin to overcome food guilt:
- Don’t think of foods as “good” or “bad.” Labeling certain foods as “bad” makes us feel like we aren’t ever allowed to have them. Unfortunately, this usually backfires and puts extra focus on that food. Now that it is off limits, we end up wanting the food more than ever now. Getting rid of strict food rules helps to get you out of the guilty eating cycle and puts you back in control of your choices.10
- Give yourself permission to enjoy your food. If you choose to eat something pleasurable, then really enjoy it. Savor the moment and take in all the flavors and textures. This will make for a positive eating experience, rather than fueling a harmful cycle of caving to your urges and then feeling guilty afterward. Embrace the experience, feel satisfied in eating your treat, and go about your business free from guilt.
- Slow down and eat with mindfulness. Oftentimes, mindless choices result in food guilt later on. So do your best to bring intention to your food choices in each moment. Use your intuition to guide what you are putting into your mouth to fuel and nourish your body.
- Zoom out to the bigger picture. One meal, one snack, or one slice of cake will not make a major difference in the end; those moments make up just one small part of your dietary choices as a whole. So don’t hyper focus on each and every food choice you make. Keep your eye on your overall dietary trends instead.
- Look for learning opportunities rather than beating yourself up. If you do find yourself off track with healthy eating habits and indulging in more treat foods than you intend to, bring curiosity and a growth mindset to the situation. Without judgment, consider where things might be getting off track. What are the biggest barriers to you eating in a way that feels supportive of your body? Why might this setback be happening now? Think about how you might be able to do things differently moving forward to shift things for yourself.
- Find foods you love that also nourish you. Eating should be a pleasurable experience. It shouldn’t be something you hate. Experiment with various foods to find recipes and meals that get you excited about eating well. That way, you can support your goals of healthy eating while also enjoying yourself in the process.
Oils and essences for guilt
Along with controlling feelings of guilt using the methods above, essential oils can assist with healing an imbalance of this emotion as well. A few oils that can be especially beneficial for guilt include blue tansy, jasmine, neroli, and spruce.
Flower essences are another effective way to deal with feelings of guilt. Pine flower essence is at the top of this list here, as it can help those who feel a deep sense of guilt, self-blame, and unworthiness. This oil is believed to stimulate feelings of self-forgiveness and acceptance.
A few other essences that can assist with guilt are:
- Hyssop – for body based guilt
- Pink monkey flower – for shame and guilt
- Iona pennywort – for guilt, self-judgment, and fear
When using these oils and essences, you can apply them over your heart, back, or neck, as this is where guilt tends to hide.
Guilty Virtual Item stressor
A digital signature representing the state of feeling guilty is automatically scanned in the Balance Biosurvey. Along with other emotions scanned, Guilty appears in the Mental/Emotional Stress section of the Wellness, Immunity, and Emotion Vectors Reports. This information allows you to see not only if the Guilty Virtual Item was out of range, but also see how far out of range it was.
In addition to being able to scan for the Guilty Virtual Item, the Select and Elite also allows you to scan for more specific stressors related to guilt such as “I feel guilty,” and “I feel guilty after I eat.” If these negative statements show up as out of range, you can address them through substances like flower remedies or by reframing on the negative statement with an EVOX session.
Guilty Virtual Item balancers
Balancers are typically scanned after the Guilty Virtual Item and other items are scanned. Balancer Virtual Items can be things like supplements, oils, foods, or lifestyle changes. You can see which specific balancer brought the Guilty Virtual Item back into range in the biomarker progress chart, which is found in the Advanced Report.
The Select, Elite, and EVOX offer additional opportunities to scan for guilt-related items. Specifically, there are a variety of affirmation statements that can be scanned, including the following:
I am letting go of any guilt I hold around food.
I release all guilt, shame, and blame resulting from my past thoughts and actions.
I release myself of all feeling of guilt and self-blame.
A strong coherent response to one or more of these items may prompt you to recite the affirmation statement each day. In addition, the EVOX can provide a voice analysis as you speak these words, and the system will help you reframe your perceptions on the topic. This is a great way to address both the conscious and subconscious thoughts that lead to guilt.
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2. “Guilt.” Psychology Today. Pyschologytoday.com.
3. Whitbourne, S.K. “The Definitive Guide to Guilt.” Psychology Today. Psychologytoday.com.
Miceli, M., & C. Castelfranchi. “Reconsidering the Differences Between Shame and Guilt.” Europe’s Journal of Psychology 14, no. 3 (2018): 710–733.
5. Selva, J. “Why Shame and Guilt Are Functional For Mental Health.” Positive Psychology. Positivepsychology.com.
6. Bastin, C., B.J. Harrison, et al. (2016). “Feelings of shame, embarrassment and guilt and their neural correlates: A systematic review.” Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 71 (2016); 455–471.
7. Brenna, D. “Signs of Guilt.” WebMD LLC. Webmd.com.
8. Day, M.V., & D.R. Bobocel. “The Weight of a Guilty Conscience: Subjective Body Weight as an Embodiment of Guilt.” PloS One 8, no. 7 (2013): e69546.
9. Levine, E.E., T.B. Bitterly, T.R. Cohen, & M.E. Schweitzer. “Who is trustworthy? Predicting trustworthy intentions and behavior.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 115, no. 3 (2018): 468–494.
10. Kuijer, R.G., & J.A Boyce. “Chocolate cake. Guilt or celebration? Associations with healthy eating attitudes, perceived behavioural control, intentions and weight-loss.” Appetite 74 (2014): 48–54.