What Is Guilt?


All of us have make mistakes, no question about that. And in our minds, we may have felt responsible for wrong doing, an offense or just doing something we knew we shouldn’t have done. For example, we may have cheated on a test, or made our friends feel terrible about themselves for something we said or did. But what would it feel like, to live your life in guilt, and what exactly is guilt?

Well the majority of us probably don’t know how to live forever in shame and guilt, but there is a certain Greek Hero in an old tale who goes by the name Oedipus who does. I won’t go into the details but in a nutshell, he killed his own father unknowingly, and brought shame to his entire family by doing so. Not to mention he was king of the City Thebes, so he was forced to exile himself. To explain the relevance of this, first lets get into the mechanics of guilt. Guilt is defined as an emotional state where one believes they have done something wrong and how they feel about it. This makes sense and tells us about the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that is in charge of morality and potential gains and loss. It tells us what is perceived as “good” and what can be worthy of guilt.

But why exactly is this built into our brain? For many people, guilt can be a great burden to themselves, and is even linked to depression, anxiety, and stress. Well as it turns out, guilt is a way for our brain to show warnings of punishment, and protects us from performing negative social prejudice. It is also a check and balance system for the brain to use. Additionally, people who are addicted to alcohol, have gambling problems, and sociopaths have an inactive ventromedial prefrontal cortex. The system that checks morality, is toned down and has gone to sleep, because of their behaviors as they are already used to doing something seen as immoral.


So going back to Oedipus, imagine the magnitude of how he felt. He was responsible for both of his parents deaths, and the guilt was so strong he blinded himself. Ouch. We see that guilt exists in our brain to protect us, but depending on the intensity of the action, it could have a negative effect, literally. But exactly why would he even feel to inflict self punishment? Well look at it this way, he had a sense of mortality just like every human being and could not stand to even see himself. Self punishment is believed to be a way we show signs of remorse, which explains Oedipus’s motives. So the next time you are about to do something rash, try and consider the possible consequences. You may never know just how much impact it could have on you or how much regret it can come with. And those of you who are currently feeling guilt, it may seem like a big burden to hold, but just know in a way your body’s sense of morality is healthy and functional.


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