When we overdo guilt and anger

Humans have a talent for being guilty and angry at the same time.  This causes confusion and extreme behaviour.  Photo by Christian Sterk on Unsplash

Some clients come to me with a sense of guilt, but also a sense of anger.  Guilt, that they are not doing everything they can; but anger, that others are making life hard for them.

I want to clarify why these two emotions can come together to make a rather toxic cocktail of over-attentiveness; and also to clarify what we might do about it.


Guilt can be based on a very useful emotion.  It helps us to feel the physical effects of our own failure to live up to our own goals or intentions.  Have you ever had an overwhelming feeling that you have forgotten something, only to discover, when you check, that you really have forgotten something important?  That guiding feeling bears a relationship with guilt.  If you like, it comes from the same cognitive stable.

When we feel guilty, our ‘remembering mind’ may be checking our own inner consistency, and telling us that it has found something not right, not consistent.  For example, we may have a strong value that we should not be work-shy… but then we catch ourself avoiding hard work of some kind.  Our body reports this back to us with an uncomfortable feeling.  Guilt.


Anger can also be based on a very useful emotion.  It helps us to recognise, physically, when people and situations fail to live up to our aspirations for them.  Have you every felt a minor explosion of alarm, as you realise that something around you is not how you expected it to be?  Perhaps a shop is closed, when the website said it would be open.  That guiding feeling bears a relationship with anger.  Again, it comes from the same cognitive stable.

When we feel angry, our ‘recognising mind’ may be checking the world’s outer consistency, and telling us that it has found something inconsistent.  For example, someone we know may express a strong value of honesty… but then we catch them lying.  Our body reports this back to us with an uncomfortable feeling.  Anger.


Moderate self-checking and other-checking are excellent skills.  However, if they are overdone, the alarm system overwhelms the body, and starts to trigger extreme reactions which cease to be reasonable.

Moreover, guilt and anger aren’t very good at delegating to each other!  In other words you can end up feeling guilty and angry about the same thing, and even swinging wildly between the two in an unstable mess.  For example, you may realise suddenly that you have not done something you aimed to do.

Caught off guard, your emotional alarm system goes off, without accurately deciding where to apportion accountability.  You suddenly, therefore, become not only overwhelmed with personal guilt, but also get the urge to fire out angry blame at other people.  The double load of emotional alarm can cause a bit of a meltdown.


If we are so susceptible to guilt-anger meltdowns, what can we do about it?

One key tactic is to slow the whole process down.  The guilt-anger combination is reliant on things happening too quickly for our ability to cope.  By slowing the whole thing down, we can give ourselves a chance to respond reasonably.

When you find yourself about to explode, just stop right there, if you can.  Pause, and do something else entirely.  If you have time, go for a short walk.  If you are speaking with someone, then stop talking, breathe, swallow… anything to delay your reactions.  This has the effect of slowing down the hormonal and chemical changes that can cause the meltdown.

Another good tactic is to learn the skill of apportioning accountability.  In any situation, blame is useless.  However, it is very useful to decide (1) which actions are yours to take, and (2) which actions are others’ to take.

For instance, if you are arguing and it has escalated, then take time to consider (perhaps even on a piece of paper) what future actions you expect yourself to take to make things better; and also what future actions you hold others accountable for taking to make things better.  Then you can set about working out the best way to persuade yourself and others to do your bit.

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Guilt and anger are based on useful alarm systems, alerting us to what we might do better, and what others might do better.

However, these responses (particularly when combined) are very prone to causing overload and escalation.

To prevent overwhelm, take time to slow yourself and the situation down.  Consider carefully what you are accountable for, and what you would reasonably hold others accountable for.  Then take careful and considered action based on this reasonable apportionment of accountability.