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Apr 24

Guilt….Just Another Form of Anxiety?


Anxiety but focused on the past?

I remember feeling guilty as a kid and hearing that it was a useless emotion – which did not help me feel better.  BUT, did give me food for thought later on (and yes, I still feel guilty at times) And yes, I am an anxious person as a whole.

Thinking about it now, guilt seems to me to be a past-focused form of anxiety.  Feeling guilty is worrying about some horrible repercussion of some action I have (or fear I have) committed and one that I cannot change.  Quite possibly it happened long ago.  Additionally frustrating is that the repercussions connected to the feelings of guilt have not happened, at least to my knowledge, so I cannot address them.

So to me, guilt feels much the same as generally anxious feelings do.  it is simply that the event has already occurred and I am waiting for the the bad thing to happen or to be cognizant of it.

Guilt as Retrospective Anxiety

Guilt can indeed be viewed as a form of anxiety that is oriented toward the past. While anxiety typically involves apprehension or fear about future outcomes or events, guilt involves a retrospective concern over actions or decisions already made. Here are some ways in which guilt could be conceptualized as a form of past-focused anxiety:

  1. Worry about consequences: Just as anxiety involves worry about future consequences, guilt involves worry about the repercussions of past actions. This can include concern over damaged relationships, lost opportunities, or the way others perceive us following our actions.
  2. Fear of judgment: Anxiety often entails fear of being judged or evaluated in the future, while guilt may involve fear of being judged by others (or oneself) for past actions. This judgment can provoke significant emotional distress, as one replays and reevaluates past decisions.
  3. Rumination: Both anxiety and guilt can lead to rumination, although they focus on different temporal directions. Anxiety causes individuals to ruminate about what might happen, while guilt leads to rumination on what has already occurred. Both forms of rumination can perpetuate and intensify the respective emotions, creating cycles that are difficult to break.
  4. Trigger for action: Anxiety can motivate preparations or preventive measures to handle anticipated challenges, whereas guilt can motivate corrective actions, such as making amends or changing future behaviors to avoid repeat mistakes. In both cases, the emotions serve a purpose in motivating individuals to take steps that might reduce distress.

Addressing Guilt and Anxiety

Understanding guilt as retrospective anxiety can help in managing it more effectively. Strategies that are useful for dealing with anxiety can often be adapted for handling guilt. These might include:

  • Mindfulness and acceptance: Practicing mindfulness helps both in managing anxiety and mitigating guilt. Becoming more present-oriented can reduce worry about the future as well as rumination on the past.
  • Cognitive restructuring: This involves challenging and changing the negative thoughts that fuel anxiety and guilt. For guilt, this might mean questioning beliefs about oneself as inherently bad or unworthy because of past actions.
  • Seeking closure: Just as planning can help alleviate anxiety about the future, seeking closure can alleviate guilt. This may involve apologizing, seeking forgiveness, or simply coming to terms with one’s actions.

By viewing guilt in this way, as anxiety faced on the past, we can apply a broad range of psychological tools and insights to manage it more effectively, thereby reducing its impact on our emotional well-being. This perspective not only provides clarity but also empowers us to address our feelings with appropriate strategies.

Life can be complicated, messy, and rarely progresses in a straight line.  PeoplePsych is a Chicago-based psychotherapy group that treats adults seeking profound change in their lives.  We provide services that affirm the dignity, worth, and value of all individuals. We strive to create a safe non-judgemental space for clients to explore the issues that bring them. To connect with one of our therapists, please contact our Clinical Coordinator at (312) 252-5252 or