The Psychology Of Guilt
Sunny • onGeneral 9 years ago • 6 min read
The Psychology Of Guilt
  • Most people have been taught to feel guilty since childhood.
  • Guilt can be used to manipulate your behaviour.
  • The need for external approval makes guilt work.

Most people have, at some point in their life, been conditioned (learnt) to feel guilty. This guilt usually came from family, friends, society and/or religion who consciously or unconsciously, taught us to feel guilty for thinking or acting in a certain way.

Take childhood for example. As children we were constantly reminded of our bad behaviour, and when we did something wrong, we were told by our parents or teachers how “disappointed” they were in us.

Childhood Guilt & The Need For External Approval

The aim of this externally imposed guilt was to change your behaviour, by making you feel bad for what you did.

Once you were made to feel guilty enough you then did what your parent or teacher asked of you, so that you could escape from that guilt and win back their approval.

Guilt is therefore an extremely powerful tool which can be used to manipulate someone’s behaviour, and something which is strongly interlinked with the need for external approval.

In the articles on guilt we are going to be looking at both of these topics in detail, so that you can start living your life the way you want to live it, without being manipulated by externally imposed guilt.

So let’s start by looking at some of the reasons why guilt works, and later, the different types of guilt people commonly experience.

Why Guilt Works

One of the main reasons why guilt can be effective at influencing a person’s behaviour, comes down to simple psychology and the conditioning we received as children.

Most children were taught to seek approval from their parents for the things they said or did. When we did something “good”, our parents gave us praise and acceptance. When we did something “bad” this praise was withheld, and replaced with disapproval.

Childhood Guilt & The Need For External Approval

Since virtually all children strongly desire to receive love and acceptance from their parents, the need for parental approval is something children will work very hard to get.

The result of this however, is that over time we eventually become conditioned to seek approval from others for the things we say and do.

This then causes us to feel that in order to receive approval from others, we must do things others approve of so that they can approve of us.

For example, have you have ever bought something such as an item of clothing, whilst at the same time thinking about what others would think if they saw you in it/with it?

If so, then your behaviour (what you decided to purchase) was influenced by your need for external approval.

Childhood Guilt & The Need For External Approval

Activating The Need For External Approval

When you do or say something others regard as being unacceptable or wrong, you activate a deeply ingrained need for external approval which you were taught to seek as a child.

Even though the person who has disapproved of your actions may not be your parent, the simple act of receiving disapproval automatically triggers a desire to “win” back that approval.

Therefore in order to avoid receiving disapproval, most of us (through our childhood conditioning) will go along with whatever is popular.

For example, we may have the similar opinions as our friends, have similar tastes in fashion and even behave in similar ways.

Childhood Guilt & The Need For External Approval

Who you choose to conform to, is all dependent on who you regard as being important in your life. Usually these will be your family, close friends, actors, singers, athletes and work colleagues.

In order to be accepted by them, you essentially become them by doing things they will approve of.

Guilt Through Disapproval

Guilt is the uncomfortable feeling you experience when you do something you know will result in disapproval from those who are important to you.

It is a by-product of your actions conflicting with either your own, or an externally imposed moral code.

For example, you don’t want to eat cake because it will make you look fat, and if you look fat other people won’t find you .

However you choose to eat the cake anyway because you like eating cake (internal code), but afer finishing it you feel guilty for doing so.

In this example, your actions (eating the cake) conflicted with an externally imposed moral code. That being, if you eat cake it will make you fat, which means other people will not find you attractive.

The result of this conflict was feelings of guilt, because you did something which you thought would cause other people to disapprove of you (i.e. not find you attractive).

Although this guilt may stop you from eating another piece of cake in the short term, it is very unlikely to stop you from eating more cake in the future (I will expand upon why this is in a later article).

Childhood Guilt & The Need For External Approval

As you can see, guilt can be a very effective means of influencing someone’s behaviour, as it activates our natural childhood need to be approved by others.

If we want someone’s approval badly enough, we will change the way we look, act and even think!

Guilt serves as the motivator which “encourages” us to change our behaviour by activating another human tendency, the desire to avoid pain and experience pleasure. By conforming to others, we can avoid the pain guilt causes us.

Does Feeling Guilty Mean You Care?

Compounding the influence of guilt further, is the association between guilt and caring. Most people have been taught that feeling guilty about something shows you care about it, and not feeling guilty means you don’t, which then makes you a “bad person”.

Of course the underlying implication behind this logic is that in order to become a “good person”, you must show that you do care by feeling guilty, and then proving it by conforming to the needs and wishes of those around you.

Childhood Guilt & The Need For External Approval

In reality, not feeling guilty about something does not mean you don’t care about it, as you are simply choosing to live by your own moral code (what you believe to be good and right) rather than an externally imposed moral code (what society, friends & family believe is good and right).

Successfully overcoming guilt therefore comes from standing up for your beliefs, wants and needs, without being influenced by what other people think.


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  • Guest 9 years ago
    It was a very interesting reading! I have never came to relating the feeling of guilt (which I have excessive, sometimes) to external disapproval. I have to say that my parents were not using this parenting strategy too much and they used to praise me for the things I do. Therefore, my feeling of guilt, or self-disappointment, must be having other roots. In anyway, we must not feel guilty for the things we do but do not receive the approval for. It is impossible to be good for everyone in this life, and what is really important is to learn how to compromise...