Our Moral Compass: Understanding Guilt, Remorse, & Atonement

Jun 22, 2023



A sudden pang in the chest, a quiet voice persistently whispering at the back of our mind, we experience guilt when our actions, or deliberate lack thereof, infringe upon our personal ethical code or societal norms.

As human beings, we constantly interact with a myriad of emotions, but guilt often demands our immediate attention. It is the subjective experience of violating moral, social, or self-imposed standards. Our lens shapes these standards, tinted by inherited beliefs,  imparted values, and personal experiences. When we feel we’ve crossed these lines, guilt steps in, a vehement alarm.

When guilt emerges from our interactions, it can serve as social glue, strengthening normative bonds. Yet, when it fosters resentment or detachment, it becomes a disconnector, a wall between us and those around us. Our ability to feel guilt reflects our capacity for empathy, compassion, and moral reasoning. It serves as a reminder of our shared fragilities pushing us to reflect on our interconnectedness.

Guilt evolved alongside us, shaping our behavior and crafting social order. In “The Descent of Man,” Darwin deduced that it acts as a social adhesive, preserving group cohesion by encouraging altruistic behavior and discouraging actions that could harm the group. This suggests it’s a protective emotion, serving the community’s survival.

Guilt is bivalent; it can be destructive or reparative. On the one hand, it can hinder and weigh us down with regret and self-reproach. Incessant, disproportionate, or misdirected guilt can lead to anxiety, depression, and impaired decision-making. It can become an unbearable weight that hinders our happiness and restricts our growth. On the other hand, it can guide us toward becoming better versions of ourselves. As a guide toward ethical conduct, it reminds us of the social contract we are all a part of. In his stages of moral development, Kohlberg underscores the importance of guilt in our moral maturation. Nietzsche saw guilt as a form of self-punishment. If we ponder this idea, it challenges us to question whether guilt is a means to keep ourselves in line with our moral compass or a form of self-inflicted pain.

Psychologists have a wide range of theories on the source of guilt. Freud believed it arises from the moralistic superego’s judgment of the ego’s actions. Klein sensed guilt is rooted in the infant’s destructive fantasies about their frustrating mother. Bowlby thought it came from a child’s feeling that they failed to keep their parent close and interested. Kohut thought guilt was an evolving empathetic response proportional to a person’s psychological development. Modern Psychology suggests guilt is a product of distorted thinking, particularly absolutist beliefs that tell us what we ‘must’ do or believe. More recently, positive psychology proposes guilt can be a constructive emotion fostering personal growth and improvement.

Jung understood being conscious of one’s guilt takes substantial strength.

“[If] the individual loses his guilt and exchanges it for infantile innocence; once more he can blame the wicked father for this and the unloving mother for that, and all the time he is caught in this inescapable causal nexus like a fly in a spider’s web, without noticing that he has lost his moral freedom.”

CG Jung, CW 12, para 152

The interpretation and impact of guilt differ across cultures and religions. In Christianity, guilt is the fruit of sin against god and requires redemption. Jung understood this as a complication necessary for the development of consciousness,

“Sheer instinctuality and naïve unconsciousness untroubled by a sense of guilt would prevail if the Master had not interrupted the free development of the natural being by introducing a distinction between good and evil and outlawing the evil. Since without guilt there is no moral consciousness and without awareness of differences no consciousness at all, we must concede that the strange intervention of the master of souls was absolutely necessary for the development of any kind of consciousness and in this sense was for the good.”

CG Jung, CW 13, para 244

In contrast, Buddhism sees guilt as the result of unskilled behavior that compassionate wisdom can correct. Many indigenous cultures consider guilt a collective responsibility and its resolution a communal task. Ancient philosophers opined that guilt arises when an individual acts contrary to their rational nature, causing disharmony in the soul or the mismanagement of desires and fears, disturbing one’s state of ataraxia (calmness).

Guilt, shame, and remorse are different. Guilt focuses on a specific behavior (“I did something bad”), and shame targets the self (“I am bad”). This difference underlines why guilt might propel us towards reparative actions while shame might push us into a shell of self-loathing. Remorse is a deeper emotional response mobilizing empathy towards those affected by our actions. It is the personal regret for harm done, the recognition of the unnecessary pain we’ve caused others. If guilt proclaims, “I did something bad,” remorse whispers, “I am sorry for what I did.” This subtle shift in focus from self to other paves the path for atonement.

In navigating guilt, remorse, and atonement, we engage in a cycle of recognition, regret, and repair. This cycle might be uncomfortable, but it’s instrumental in our journey toward understanding ourselves and others. Atonement helps restore balance, both within ourselves and our relationships. It is born of recognizing the harm caused and carries the desire to mend the tear in the social fabric created by our errors.

We can relieve our burden of guilt and remorse through reparations, reestablishing our standing within our social environment. Whether apologizing to someone we’ve hurt or making amends for our mistakes, it can be a powerful antidote to guilt. It empowers us to transform guilt into constructive action.

~ Joseph Lee


“My parents sent me to a monastery because I was pregnant. (In real life, I am neither pregnant nor wish to be. I don’t have a partner, so the father or origin of this child was unclear). I was in a dark, beautiful, Medieval/Tudor style room, with basic but beautiful rich red velvet drapes and dark wood carved tables. I was standing at a window, with harsh light hitting me in the darkness, when I felt the birthing process begin. Something came out of me. I reached down and grabbed it; there was no blood or mess, just a parcel partially wrapped in white cloth. I brought it to my chest to look at. There was my child, but something was wrong. It wasn’t fully formed, and parts were still skeletal with no flesh and blood. It had strange little feet and structures like wings, like the thing I’d given birth to was a bird-human hybrid. Immediately I cried for help from the monastery inhabitants asking them to tell me if my child was alive. I noticed a little statuette of the Virgin Mary and Christ as a baby also wrapped up in the parcel. I thought, how has this come out of me? They took the child away. I ran around the monastery, distressed, needing to know if it was alive and if it would make it. I discovered it was a healthy boy. I was relieved and went to find my family to discuss names. They were deep in prayer and concerned about giving it a religious name, which was odd to me because this is out of character. Then I woke up.”


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