Keeping secrets makes people act weird in extremely predictable ways. I was sixteen the first time I caught a boy two-timing me.
“You’re not like other girls. I just don’t want labels — what we have is so good and uncomplicated,” David told me sweetly during a lunch date-that-wasn’t-a-date. That same night, he bragged to his friends about how he was simultaneously going out with me and a friend of mine at the same time — secretly.
When I found out, I felt like such a fool to have been tricked. But looking back, I kind of suspected all along. There were small signs he knew he was doing something crappy. I only wished I had listened to my gut sooner.
Most guilty people are fully aware they messed up, and they show in pretty predictable ways. These four tells are common signs of guilt.
He's Literally Hunched Over
Brains are wild. When you feel burdened with guilt, it turns out you actually feel heavier physically. Scientists found that participants who were asked to think about times they’d acted badly, they self-reported their own weight as greater than innocent participants.
In my case, David slouched. When I questioned him about his feelings for me, he hunched over more and more — even while telling me he really liked me.
A guilty conscience is a heavy thing. From teenage boys to seasoned criminals, it’s hard to escape our own brains feeling weighed down with a guilty conscience.
He's Acting Suspiciously Good to You
Most people try to balance good and bad. When you’ve done something to feel guilty about, it’s natural that you try to right it. If you know to look out for it, it’s a dead giveaway of guilty feelings.
When I accidentally put my hand through my sister’s favorite painting, I didn’t immediately tell her. I hid it in my closet and laid the sisterly love on extremely thick. I got us tickets to the museum, picked up lattes, and brought her home some pastries out of the blue.
“Zulie, what the hell is going on?” she finally asked after this bizarre behavior had been going on for a week. “What are you trying to compensate for?”
Caught in the act, I confessed I’d broken her painting.
Luckily, she wasn’t too mad. But I’d given myself up with my guilty behavior. “If you hadn’t been so weird about it, I never would have known,” she told me.
He Constantly Over-Justify His Actions
Likewise, when someone knows they f-ed up, there’s a lot of mental calculus that goes on as they try to justify their behavior, even if only to themselves. They try to justify everything they do — not just whatever they lied to you about, but any action they take.
“If [they] are constantly sharing all the reasons they need to take a certain action or think a certain way…they might be suffering from guilt,” psychotherapist and relationship expert Kelly Bos, tells Bustle.
In retrospect, David did this pretty obviously — whenever he went to a party that I didn’t go to, he always meticulously detailed out his actions to me, even when I didn’t ask. If he didn’t pick up the phone, he’d always text me with an elaborate reason. At the time, I thought he was just an oversharer. Now, I know he was guilty and trying to rationalize it.
He Reacts Out of Proportion if You Question Him
To quote Tacitus, “To show resentment at a reproach is to acknowledge that one may have deserved it.” In other words, if you question someone you suspect of a guilty conscience, and they overreact, it’s probably spot on.
“Guilt is a form of self-criticism that can beat your ego like a drummer hits a tom-tom,” writes psychologist Steven Berglas in Forbes.
When someone feels guilty, they’re probably already piling on self-criticism. When you add a question to that stack — anything as simple as, “why didn’t you call me back last night?” or “how come you spend so much time on your phone?” — that can often be the straw that breaks the guilty camel’s back.
David’s lesson hurt, but it was valuable: trust yourself and trust your gut feeling about people. Humans are pretty good about picking up each other’s tells. A guilty consciousness is no exception.
But you know what? I actually love the fact that guilty people are so predictable — to me, it’s a sign of a functional moral compass that we all have.
There are better things to have in common with each other, yes, but it gives me hope that nobody is truly irredeemable: a guilty conscience is a sign of eventual improvement. We all go astray sometimes, but we all react in such obvious and predictable ways to our guilty feelings. We messed up, and we use that as feedback for behavior moving forward.