The feeling of guilt is an unpleasant psychic state resulting from an action experienced as reprehensible (violation of an ethical, moral or religious norm). It is associated with a lowering of the level of self-esteem and the tendency to assume an expiatory or reparatory behavior. In depressive states, guilt can be a global feeling, not in relation to a specific action, which can push the subject to self-punishment. According to the psychoanalytic interpretation, it is a consequence of a conscious or unconscious conflict between ego and superego and the need for self-punishment is the effect of the unconscious conflict with a very rigid superego.

The concept of guilt in philosophy starts from the observation of the adequacy of man with his being and with respect to duty and memory. Heidegger deals with the concept in Being and Time, defining guilt “to be the foundation of a nothingness”. In the work Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche links the sense of guilt to oblivion. In the second dissertation Nietzsche emphasizes the role of oblivion in giving new space by erasing the memories of “bad conscience”. In Christian philosophers, guilt is inextricably linked to a religious message of sin, resulting in redemption.

Guilt is an emotion that stems from a past event, so the process that determines and maintains it is rumination. Those who are afflicted by chronic guilt are totally absorbed in this negative state to the point of affecting their relational and social life. Exactly by guilt is meant the continuous rethinking of how a situation could have gone differently from how it has turned out. Therefore, it is a continuous reporting of the past in the present through images and thoughts related to the event. All this ruminating leads to detachment from reality and not to fully enjoy everyday life.

The thoughts of those who are guilty are like: I can’t forgive myself for what I did, that’s why I feel like a bad person and I don’t deserve anything good. Guilt is an emotion, having as its purpose to warn against events. If it becomes chronic, it becomes pathological and at this point you have to question the way you deal with situations and, above all, your thoughts and behaviors, taking responsibility if necessary.

From guilt to sense of guilt

Often, however, it is not really guilt, but something called guilt. Guilt differs from guilt because it announces that things may not go as we would like, but we are not yet sure how they will end. It is a kind of anticipatory state of the actual guilt. On the other hand, guilt manifests itself after things have happened, when there is nothing more to be done.

Only at this point, when the sense of guilt turns into real guilt and it is not possible to remedy what happened, the negative emotion invades and pervades everything. In any case, these are emotions that have to do with the sphere of morality, and could in the extreme result in shame until the wrongdoing is remedied. Very often, it is not possible to remedy and at that point the only thing to do is to accept what happened without further rumination.

Before coming to acceptance, however, it is necessary to manage the negative emotion by becoming familiar with it, getting to know it and trying to understand what it is and how it acts. All of which, is undoubtedly very difficult to implement, because recognizing guilt means taking note of one’s weaknesses and therefore questioning one’s sense of self-efficacy.

In addition, guilt can conceal a sense of omnipotence or perfection (it’s all my fault!), implemented through excessive control over reality. All this induces others to exercise power because by leveraging the sense of guilt they hold in check until they bring the unfortunate person into the abyss of guilt.

The sense of guilt follows the transgression and activates the anguish of punishment, while shame is accompanied by the perception of a total or partial failure of one’s own dignity and by the sensation of the danger of affective abandonment, this happens because the perception of having become a despicable person is manifested.

With the sense of guilt the person questions ‘what have I done’, in fact, this affective state sees as a fundamental element the possibility of reparation, implemented as a consequence of what has happened previously; given this drive to action it is possible to consider the sense of guilt as a primitive emotion. With shame, on the other hand, the individual questions the ‘how I am’, this means that there are very few possibilities to remedy what has happened. The main difficulty lies in the fact that this emotion is the result of an internal state of the self and not the product of an external conflict, in fact, shame undermines the integrity of the self and one’s abilities.

Historically a distinction is not always made between shame and guilt, so it happens that often the two concepts overlap, this comes from the number of common aspects between the two affective states. We could make many examples about these similarities, to mention some of them it is appropriate to say that both these affective states are part of the so called moral emotions, in other words they promote a kind of so called moral behavior and try to inhibit those behaviors that, instead, would imply a transgression. Another example with reference to the conceptual proximity of these two emotions is given by the fact that shame and guilt are emotions with a negative valence and both arise in response to those situations in which the person is faced with a personal failure or a transgression, generally occurred in an interpersonal context.

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