The word “guilt” is used in a variety of senses. Most people use it either to describe a state of responsibility for an action such as a crime, or to describe feelings of emotional conflict and upset that may arise after someone does something that he or she should not do. As an emotion, guilt is extremely complex, and analyzing it and the feelings that surround it are common in psychotherapy sessions. Some psychologists believe that guilt is a very important aspect of human behavior.
Guilt is derived from the Old English gylt, which means “crime.” This origin explains the first sense of the word, that of responsibility for a crime or action. In the legal world, it is determined by trials that weigh available evidence to decide whether or not someone committed a crime. People may also confess to being guilty of something like taking the last cookie from the jar or leaving the water running in the bathroom. While these acts are not necessarily crimes, they are socially unacceptable in many cultures.
It is important to distinguish guilt from remorse. In the legal sense, someone can be guilty without feeling remorse, a genuine sense of sorrow for the commitment of an act. In psychology, however, many people feel both emotions. The absence of remorse for heinous crimes like serial killing is considered by psychologists to be suggestive of a psychopathic personality, making the distinction between these two concepts very important.
In the psychological sense, guilt is a very difficult and complicated emotion to pin down. In addition to feeling this emotion for legitimately wrongful acts, people may also be conditioned to feel it for more ambiguous deeds. For example, feeling guilty over not paying the electric bill is a fairly straightforward emotion, but feeling this way for eating a muffin is a bit more nuanced. Some people with psychological conditions struggle with guilt as part of their overall condition.
Feelings of guilt are common among perfectionists, people who push themselves to be perfect. While most people want to succeed in life, perfectionism can push this common desire to a dangerous level. Some individuals with eating disorders, for example, are also perfectionists, and this trait leads them to lose weight dangerously, to push themselves to lose more, and to have feelings of guilt for actions which other people don't even think about, let along view negatively. Guilt also arises in trauma survivors, victims of abuse, and people who have had difficult childhoods. Resolving these feelings, as well as remorse, is an important part of the healing process.