PTSD Symptoms What Is a Guilt Complex? By Kendra Cherry Kendra Cherry Facebook Twitter Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology. Learn about our editorial process Updated on August 21, 2022 Medically reviewed Verywell Mind articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and mental healthcare professionals. Medical Reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more. by David Susman, PhD Medically reviewed by David Susman, PhD David Susman, PhD is a licensed clinical psychologist with experience providing treatment to individuals with mental illness and substance use concerns. Learn about our Medical Review Board Print Verywell / Alison Czinkota Table of Contents View All Table of Contents What Is a Guilt Complex? Characteristics Causes Types Treatment Coping What Is a Guilt Complex? A guilt complex refers to a persistent belief that you have done something wrong or that you will do something wrong. In addition to constant feelings of guilt and worry, a guilt complex can also lead to feelings of shame and anxiety. While a guilt complex may be the result of real harm that a person may have caused, it can also center on imagined or perceived guilt. People may think that they have done something wrong, even though they haven't. In other cases, they may overestimate their own role in a situation, believing that their own minor mistakes had a much more serious impact than they really did. It is important to note that while a guilt complex can be distressing, it is not recognized as a separate condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). Excessive and inappropriate guilt is associated with a number of mental health conditions including depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Why Some Disorders Are Not Found in the DSM-5 Characteristics Guilt is described as a self-conscious emotion that involves negative evaluations of the self, feelings of distress, and feelings of failure. Some of the signs that you might be coping with a guilt complex include: Anxiety Crying Insomnia Muscle tension Preoccupation with past mistakes Regret Upset stomach Worry A guilt complex can also lead to feelings of anxiety, depression, and stress including difficulty sleeping, loss of interest, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and social withdrawal. A guilt complex can have a serious impact on a person's overall well-being. Over time, people may begin to develop a sense of inadequacy that makes it difficult for them to pursue goals. They may feel that they don't deserve to move on and may engage in behaviors designed to punish themselves for their mistakes. Feelings of shame are another common consequence of a guilt complex. As a result of this shame, people may isolate themselves from others. This can have a devastating impact on relationships and make it difficult to find strong social support. Causes There are a number of different factors that can contribute to a guilt complex. Some of these include: Anxiety: If you have a great deal of anxiety, you may be more likely to negatively assess your own actions in ways that lead to feelings of guilt. Childhood experiences: Children who are raised in households where they are made to feel that they have done something wrong, have something to hide, or are responsible for problems may be left with lingering feelings of guilt.Culture: If you find yourself doing things that are in opposition to the cultural norms you were raised with, you may experience guilt even if you no longer believe in or support those norms. Religion: Some religious traditions rely on feelings of guilt as a way to indicate that a person has done something wrong. Social pressure: If you feel that other people are judging you for the things that you have done, you may be left with feelings of guilt and remorse. What to Do If You Feel Guilty About Success Types There are many different forms of guilt that can contribute to a guilt complex. Some of these include: Natural guilt: If you genuinely committed a wrong and feel bad for what you have done, guilt is a normal response. This type of guilt can be adaptive and can motivate you to take action or make changes in ways that are beneficial in the future. For example, you might relieve your guilt by apologizing for an action or changing a problematic behavior. If these actions are not addressed in a way that allows you to move on, however, they may lead to lingering feelings of persistent guilt that interfere with your life. Maladaptive guilt: Sometimes people feel guilty about things that weren't within their control. For example, they may feel guilty that they didn't take action to prevent something that they had no way of predicting. Even though there was truly nothing they could do, they still feel strong feelings of regret, shame, and guilt. Guilty thoughts: Everyone has negative or inappropriate thoughts from time to time, yet sometimes people develop feelings of guilt for having such thoughts. Even though they may not act on them, they may fear that it means that they will or fear that others will find out about their "bad" thoughts. Existential guilt: This type of guilt can be complicated and often centered on things like guilt over injustices or guilt about not living according to one's principles. One type of existential guilt is known as survivor’s guilt. Sometimes people will experience a guilt complex because they are doing well when others they care about are not. This can emerge when someone survives some time of accident or disaster in which others are harmed, but it can also occur when other people experience misfortune when you don't. Why You Might Sometimes Feel Like a Bad Person? Treatment It is important to get help in order to protect your mental well-being and quality of life. If you are experiencing symptoms of guilt that are interfering with your daily life and causing distress, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional. There are different treatment options that may help you cope with a guilt complex. Medications Your doctor may prescribe antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications to help you cope with symptoms of depression or anxiety, but they may also recommend psychotherapy. Psychotherapy Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one approach that involves learning to recognize the negative thoughts that lead to feelings of guilt. By learning to replace these thoughts with more positive ones, people may be able to let go of the burdens that are contributing to their guilt complex. CBT can also help you to develop a better understanding of yourself, including your emotions and attitudes. When something happens that may lead to guilt, you'll be better equipped to deal with it in the moment and avoid some of the cognitive distortions that contribute to the development of guilt. Research suggests that guilt associated with trauma can contribute to an increased risk of suicidal thoughts, so seeking help for these feelings of guilt is essential. If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911. For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database. Coping If you are trying to cope with persistent feelings of guilt, there are things that you can do that may make it easier to manage these difficult emotions. Some strategies that may help you cope with a guilt complex include: Reframe the Situation If you find yourself only focusing on negative thoughts, consider ways to think differently about the situation. Were there other factors that played a role? What can you do differently in the future? Finding a way to shift your focus from the negative to more realistic, positive thoughts may help you move past your feelings of self-recrimination. Forgive Yourself Learning how to practice self-forgiveness can be an important tool for letting go of guilt. Forgiving yourself doesn't mean letting yourself off the hook if you've made a mistake or caused someone harm; instead, it's about taking responsibility, allowing yourself some time to express remorse, making amends, and then finding a way to move on. Talk to Someone Sharing your feelings with a close friend can sometimes be helpful. Social support can play a pivotal role in coping with difficult emotions, so maintaining your relationships with friends and loved ones is important. If you struggle to talk to your loved ones about your feelings of guilt or if they are not providing the type of support you need, discussing your feelings with a mental health professional can also be helpful. Traditional face-to-face therapy sessions are one option, but online therapy may also be a convenient option that you might want to consider. Guilt isn’t necessarily an unhealthy emotion. It can help you learn to identify things you want to change and find ways to mend relationships you may have harmed. Feelings of guilt can serve as a way to identify and correct social transgressions that threaten relationships with other people. It is when these feelings become persistent and overwhelming that it is important to seek professional help. Talk to your doctor or a mental health professional if you are experiencing symptoms of excessive guilt or other symptoms of depression. Press Play for Advice On Dealing With Shame and Guilt Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares how to address your shame and guilt so you can move forward. Click below to listen now. Subscribe Now: Apple Podcasts / Spotify / Google Podcasts 4 Sources Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy. Tilghman-Osborne C, Cole DA, Felton JW. Definition and measurement of guilt: Implications for clinical research and practice. Clin Psychol Rev. 2010;30(5):536-546. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2010.03.007 Miceli M, Castelfranchi C. Reconsidering the differences between shame and guilt. Eur J Psychol. 2018;14(3):710-733. doi:10.5964/ejop.v14i3.1564 Tripp JC, McDevitt-Murphy ME. Trauma-related guilt mediates the relationship between posttraumatic stress disorder and suicidal ideation in OEF/OIF/OND veterans. Suicide Life Threat Behav. 2017;47(1):78-85. doi:10.1111/sltb.12266 Cryder CE, Springer S, Morewedge CK. Guilty feelings, targeted actions. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2012;38(5):607-618. doi:10.1177/0146167211435796 By Kendra Cherry Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology. See Our Editorial Process Meet Our Review Board Share Feedback Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! What is your feedback? Other Helpful Report an Error Submit Speak to a Therapist for PTSD Advertiser Disclosure × The offers that appear in this table are from partnerships from which Verywell Mind receives compensation.