Anatomy of Guilt

So far you’ve made your lists of all the past and current things you feel guilty about and examined how intense those feelings are. Well done!

Now let’s look at whether you are actually entitled to feel guilt. Yes, I do mean entitled. All too often we take on guilt over something that is not our fault, not our responsibility or totally out of our control. That is termed “inappropriate guilt.” How then do we distinguish between appropriate guilt and inappropriate guilt?


Part of being human is acknowledging that we have a complex set of agreements about how we should behave towards one another, all other forms of life, our planet and so on. This we refer to as a code of ethics. Ethics makes an appeal to our values and to our personal sense of integrity.

We also have social agreements about what is “right” and what is “wrong.” These are referenced according to the prevailing moral code of the day.

We also have agreements (laws) about how people are held accountable for breaking these agreements. These are interpreted and administered by reference to an agreed code of justice.


There are 2 types of Appropriate Guilt:

1. Anticipatory Guilt serves as our ethical and moral compass and hopefully prevents us from going ahead with something that would break an agreement. It is a good “guilt avoidance” system.

2. Appropriate Retrospective Guilt over something we chose to do, (or chose not to do but should have), that actually did break an agreement, is our way of feeling our responsibility and administering a form of self-justice. It is evidence of a well formed conscience.

If we have broken an agreement, we should feel guilty. The guilt is our teacher. We are entitled to it. For example, if I got drunk, drove recklessly and killed someone, I am entitled to feel guilty about it. I should feel guilty about it. I behaved badly with fatal consequences.


On the other hand, if I was driving safely and a cyclist swerved in front of me such that I had no way to avoid him or stop, and I killed him, guilt would be inappropriate under such circumstances. Sadness and deep regret? Yes, of course. But not guilt. I would not have earned the right to feel guilty. I would not be entitled to it. I should NOT feel guilty about it.

Inappropriate guilt therefore is felt when we blame ourselves for something that we did not consciously choose, had no control over, no responsibility for, and for which we cannot reasonably be held accountable. Survivor’s guilt is one such form of inappropriate guilt. This is when, say, a group of people die in a fire, and the survivor feels guilty— for not dying too.

A good sign of inappropriate guilt is when people say, “Yes, but if only I had done this or that…..” or “I should have done this…” when clearly there was no apparent reason for them to have foreseen the need to do any such thing prior to the event.

Let me be blunt.
Inappropriate guilt is a victim’s emotion.

When you find that you are in this kind of a guilt trip – tell yourself that you have absolutely no right to feel guilty for this.


Inferred Guilt: This is guilt we pick up from others when they feel we are to blame and, even though we are innocent, we feel guilty, especially when we are around them. This is a co-dependent’s emotion and it is inappropriate.

Guilt by Association: This occurs when we feel guilty for what others connected with you have done. Parents feeling guilty for what their children have done is one example. Again this is co-dependency. (However, they might be entitled to feel appropriate guilt for not being good parents.)

Projected Guilt: Don’t buy this one! This is guilt projected onto us by others who are feeling guilty themselves. Rather than feel it, they dump it on us. They play the blame game and lay guilt trips. Once again, if we are co-dependent, we might fall for it, but it is, of course, inappropriate guilt. Refuse to accept it.