Why some people constantly suffer from guilt

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This is Part 3 in our mini-series on Morals & Guilt. Click here to read Part 1. When I was around 14 yrs old, I read the Bible verse: ‘You should love your neighbour as yourself’. I took it literally.
Start Quote I decided that if I was going to love my neighbour as much as myself, then I should give half of my pocket money to the poor. I felt that this would be the only true way to love others as much as myself. End Quote
At the time, my dad gave me £4 pocket money a week – so £16 per month. After a few months I handed Dad half my pocket money and asked him to write cheques out (totalling around £60) to a couple of charities for me. He was pretty pissed. This was probably because he knew I was giving this money to Christian charities and that they were going to be mixing feeding poor people with preaching to poor people. But he begrudgingly made the cheques out for me.

Some of us feel very guilty about others being worse off than us

I felt extremely guilty about the fact that some people were a lot worse off than I was. Some people are starving to death. Some Christians were being tortured and killed for their beliefs.
Start Quote I could try to blame my guilt entirely on the fact that the bible made me feel guilty. But the truth is, my personality has a tendency to experience guilt, and my religion just played into that. End Quote
This all leads me to the third reason why many of us experience guilt: empathy.
  • When I was a 12 year old, my English teacher once told my class that people only ever give to the poor to make themselves feel better. I argued with him at length, saying that I gave to the poor to help them. On reflection, I think that both reasons are probably true actually. But certainly part of the reason I want to help people is because I know what it feels like to experience pain and suffering, and I don’t want others to have to go through pain.

Too much guilt creates anxiety

One of the central themes that the Ethical Issues articles on this website will be addressing is our ability to manage guilt feelings. Excessive guilt is a typical hallmark of many people who suffer from anxiety. Guilt can also undermine our ability to make good life decisions and function well. A strong sense of empathy with others is typically associated with altruistic behaviour and caring for others. However, when it exists in excess, it can contribute to anxiety and guilt.

What traits contribute to morals and guilt?

We have now highlighted three traits which I believe contribute to our possessing strong morals and feelings of guilt.
  1. A Rule-Abiding tendency
  2. A concern for maintaining social approval
  3. Empathy
Obviously the types of moral codes or laws which we are most concerned to adhere to will depend on which of these three traits we possess. In any event, if you possess any of these traits to the extreme, it may be that you struggle with excessive guilt. Excessive guilt can cause immense anxiety and even mental health problems. People who suffer from depression also often suffer from excessive guilt.

Part 4 - How To Be Free From Guilt & Reduce Your Anxiety

Excessive guilt was a central feature of my own struggles with mental health issues when I was a young man. In Part 4 of this series we will discuss how we can try to manage feelings of excessive guilt. Click here for Part 4. What do you think? I would love to hear what you think: do you think that highly empathetic people often suffer from more guilt than less empathetic people? Quiz: Try our Empathy for Suffering quiz and find out how strongly you empathise with suffering - CLICK HERE Photo: Donnie Ray Jones


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