Guilt and its handmaiden, shame, can paralyze us––or catalyze us into action. Appropriate guilt can function as social glue, spurring one to make reparations for wrongs. Excessive rumination about one’s failures, however, is a surefire recipe for resentment and depression.
When it comes to guilt, Freud was the expert, but he certainly didn’t have a corner on the market. Guilt comes in many forms, but when all is said and done, it can be boiled down to a set of five basic types. You’ll learn what those five types are, but first let’s take a look at how psychologists define guilt.
Guilt is, first and foremost, an emotion. You may think of guilt as a good way to get someone to do something for you out of a sense of obligation. Guilt is not a very good motivator. It’s more accurate to think of guilt as an internal state. In the overall scheme of emotions, guilt is in the general category of negative feeling states. It’s one of the “sad” emotions, which also include agony, grief, and loneliness, according to one comprehensive framework (Fischer, Shaver, & Carnochan, 1990).