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How Do Guilt and Anger Interact With Each Other?

Understanding their interaction can help to lessen emotional suffering.

Key points

  • Guilt is an evolutionary response to help us sustain social connections.
  • Both anger and guilt can play off of each other in ways that undermine our emotional well-being.
  • Constructively managing guilt and anger calls for acceptance, rather than harsh judgment of these emotions.
123rf Stock Photo / AI image
AI image depicting guilt and anger
Source: 123rf Stock Photo / AI image

Guilt is viewed as an evolutionary response to inform us of ways to strengthen our belonging to the pack—helping us to sustain social connection. Guilt might be activated when we experience ourselves as being overly self-centered or caring less about another or even causing them harm.

Anger is our reaction to feeling wronged by others especially as it threatens our emotional or physical well-being. When we take time to reflect on it, we can better identify our core needs or values that are experienced as being threatened.

Both anger and guilt are emotions that are helpful in creating boundaries in our interactions with others. How we respond to these emotions can be constructive or destructive to our well-being.

The Positive Power of Guilt

Guilt has a positive side to it. It can help us form guardrails for our behavior. It leads to ethical behavior while anger may more likely lead to unethical behavior (Motro, Ordonez, Ittarello, et. al., 2016). For example, one study found that, when angry, children more prone to experience guilt expressed their anger in non-aggressive disruptive behavior, rather than aggression (Galarneau, Colasante, Malti, 2021).

Additionally, guilt has been found to be associated with greater empathy with others (Roberts, Strayer, & Denham, 2014).

One earlier study explored the relationship between shame and guilt to constructive versus destructive responses to anger across the lifespan (Tangney, J., Wagner, P., Fletcher, C., et. al., 1996). Across all ages, shame proneness was related to maladaptive responses to anger—in all its forms—including malevolent intentions; direct, indirect, and displaced aggression; self-directed hostility; and negative long-term consequences. In contrast, guilt-proneness was associated with constructive means of handling anger, including constructive intentions, corrective action, nonhostile discussion with the target of the anger, cognitive reappraisals of the target's role, and positive long-term consequences.

In a study of gender differences, one study reported that young women, more than young men, were prone to guilt and shame (Lutwak, Panish, Ferrari, et al., 2001). For both, guilt-proneness was correlated with anger control. It is interesting to note that for females, guilt-proneness was also negatively related to expectations for future success.

The role of guilt was studied with respect to interactions between friends and acquaintances (Julle-Daniere, Whitehouse, Vrij, et al., 2020). In a gaming situation, guilt was induced in one member of each pair. They were then informed of wrongdoing by their partner. Guilty people were motivated to repair the wrongdoing regardless of friendship.

Observing guilt in others led to a punishment effect and victims of wrongdoing punished close friends more so than acquaintances.

Guilt Can Trigger or Be a Reaction to Anger

Guilt can also trigger anger, especially when we judge our experience of guilt as a weakness or character flaw—and consequently, as a threat to our ego. In this way, guilt is like other negative emotions that can trigger anger.

Consequently, how we judge our feelings can lead to further suffering. And while anger can serve as a distraction and reaction to uncomfortable emotions such as guilt, suppressing our other feelings may only fuel such anger.

Additionally, harshly judging our anger may lead to guilt. When this occurs, each feeling tends to enhance the strength of the other. One resolution to this dilemma is to self-direct such anger, with or without full awareness. This may entail a broad range of behaviors from unwittingly sabotaging one’s efforts in a career, overly deferring in a relationship, or even physical self-harm.

Constructively Responding to Guilt or Anger

A major task in dealing with guilt and anger is first to view these emotions as messages from our inner landscape. They inform us about our deeply felt needs and desires. As such, learning to acknowledge such feelings without judgment is essential to move past them.

By cultivating our capacity to sit with and reflect on these feelings, we enhance our capacity to constructively respond to them. This moment of pause and reflection can help us to better understand how these two emotions interact with each other.

Another part of this task is to recognize the degree to which our reaction is influenced by past experiences with these emotions. Specifically, noticing the degree to which your history has left you prone to guilt or anger.

When this is the case, these feelings may be more easily triggered by current situations. Noticing when the intensity of these feelings seems unwarranted by the current situation suggests that while you are triggered by a current event, this reaction is anchored in the past.

For example, we may have tremendous guilt associated with sex, due to messages we received growing up. And while religion or culture may further contribute to such guilt, our sexuality is an important part of our being human.

Some of us may feel tremendous guilt when we focus on our own needs, behave in ways that draw attention to ourselves or live a life that more truly reflects our authentic selves. While this tendency might arise from having parents who are narcissistic, it can also evolve as a reaction to a wide variety of early interactions and caretaking.

This calls for relearning regarding when to trust this feeling and when it may be in our best interest to observe and ignore it.

Addressing guilt may involve taking action to undo what we have done. For example, we may choose to apologize to someone when we feel we have offended them. We may talk to a friend or loved one and share our feelings that led up to our actions.

At times, we may find ourselves guilty with little direct recourse for making amends. Years ago, I worked with a client who while drunk drove his car past a stop sign. This led to injuring a passenger in another car.

This was clearly an action he could not undo. His guilt and shame led him to abuse alcohol for a year before he decided how he could best address his feelings. He became involved with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), a non-profit organization that strives to stop drunk driving, support those impacted by drunk driving, and seek stricter impaired driving policies.

To a great extent, dealing with our guilt also involves learning forgiveness, and realizing that being human is complicated and we may behave in ways that we regret. Each of us makes decisions with the awareness and emotional skills we have at any given moment.

It becomes too easy to beat ourselves with hindsight about the insight we lacked at such moments. At such moments, it is in our best interest to practice what Rick Hanson describes as “healthy remorse.”

Learning forgiveness helps us to let go of guilt and our anger with ourselves and others. In the process, it helps us to more readily pause to recognize our feelings, rather than react to them.

Forgiveness is a process that takes time and does not mean we simply forget or overlook our behaviors. Rather, it urges us to be more fully present and aware of how guilt and anger interact, so that we can choose more constructive ways of dealing with them.


Motro, D., Ordonez, L., Pittarello, A., et. al. (2016). Investigating the effects of anger and guilt on unethical behavior: A dual process approach. Journal of Business Ethics, Vol. 152, 133-148.

Galarneau, E., Colasante, T., & Malti, T. (2022). Feeling bad about feeling mad: Anger predicts higher non-aggressive disruptive behavior but not aggression in children with higher ethical guilt. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, Vol. 79 (10), 101384.


Roberts, W., Strayer, J., & Denham, S. (2014) Empathy, anger, guilt: emotions and prosocial behavior. Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science, Vol. 46 (4), 465-474.

Tangney, J., Wagner, P., Hill-Barlow, D. (1996) Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 70, (4), 797-809.

Lutwak, N., Panish, J., Ferrari, J., et. al. (2001). Adolescence, Vol. 36 (144), Winter.

Jule-Daniere, E., Whitehouse, J., Vrij, A., et. al. (2020) The social function of feeling and expression of guilt. Royal Science Open Science, 7: 200617.

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