Have you ever felt guilty? Of course, you have. Most of us are too familiar with that uncomfortable emotion, guilt.
But did you know that questioning guilty feelings, and sometimes even doing something with it, can lead to self-improvement, feelings of empowerment, and stronger self-esteem?
Identify Your Guilt
I’ll tell you all about the positives that can arise from guilty feelings, but first, I’ll tell you why it’s a good idea to address such an unpleasant emotion at all:
As David A. Bednar, who has been ordained an apostle in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, puts it: “Guilt is to the spirit as pain is to the body.”
In other words, guilt hurts. And if we don’t address it, as we would address a physical pain that kept us from moving forward in the physical plane, guilty feelings can fester and worsen and cause lasting damage to our interior lives.
Especially if you’re someone for whom guilt has become an automatic emotion over time (raising my hand here), guilt may come at us from any direction, including when we break promises to ourselves. That pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream I polished off when I’d promised myself this would be the week I’d cut out sugar? That pint couldn’t hold all the guilt I felt.
And that guilt aligned with two of Merriam-Webster’s definitions of the word:
the state of one who has committed an offense especially consciously
feelings of deserving blame especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy
Fortunately, I’d done a lot of thinking about guilt before I overindulged, so I was able to pull myself out of the pit of despair pretty quickly.
By remembering an article I’d read on the Psychology Today website written by the clinical social worker and prolific writer Robert Taibbi. He identifies two kinds of guilt, irrational guilt and rational guilt (I’ve also heard these called unhealthy and healthy guilt, respectively).
Irrational Guilt vs. Rational Guilt
My ice-cream-induced guilt fell into the rational category, which Taibbi defines as coming from our “adult brain.” Rational guilt can arise from the violation of some self-imposed rule; in other words, a violation of our values. When dealt with effectively, rational guilt can be healthy—it can encourage us to have more empathy, take corrective action, and improve ourselves. That’s what Taibbi says anyway, and my response to my ice cream binge proved him correct: As soon as I realized I was experiencing rational guilt, I stopped beating myself up and promised to do better avoiding sugar the next time I was presented with a treat.
Not only did my guilty feelings dissipate; dealing with it in a healthy way motivated me to do better.
But what about that irrational guilt? Yes, that’s the tougher one. According to Taibbi, irrational guilt comes from our “little-kid brain” and is based on shoulds, feelings of over-responsibility, and underlying anxieties. I should have been a better parent because then my adult child would be happier now. Or, I shouldn’t quit the job I hate because they’ll never be able to replace me.
Irrational guilt has its basis in shame. (Guilt = I did something bad. Shame = I am bad.) What characterizes irrational guilt, Taibbi writes, is irrational thinking, specifically about consequences. And, “Irrational guilt tends to linger and nag regardless of what you do.” That’s when it can fester, grow into something bigger than it deserves, and cause us poor health, either psychologically or physically or both.
Fortunately, there’s a cure for irrational guilt, too.
A colleague told me a story about how when she and her younger sister were in elementary school, they spent most weekends unattended while their parents partied with friends. Their parents were in the vicinity but not in parenting mode. Frequently, my colleague and her sister were placed under the charge of teenagers who didn’t want to babysit and who exposed them to some inappropriate concepts and behaviors. My colleague, now in her fifties, has always felt deeply guilty about her role in these weekends. She felt like she should have protected her younger sister from seeing and participating in activities that weren’t age-appropriate.
Those guilty feelings festered. She thought about it often and wished she could change the past. And, she saw some behaviors in her sister as an adult that she thought sure were vestiges of those weekends. She never spoke about those feelings to anyone. Then, one day, it hit her like a lightning strike: She needed to apologize to her sister before it was too late. So, she called her sister up and told her how she’d been feeling for decades.
“Thanks,” her sister said. “But I don’t remember much from those weekends, and I certainly never blamed you. You were only 18 months younger than I was.”
My colleague was blown away, both by her sister’s response (it had never occurred to her that her sister wasn’t also consumed with negative feelings about those weekends) and by the immediate relief she felt. Those feelings lifted. It no longer festers. Now, she can wish those weekends hadn’t happened without feeling like she should have done something about them.
If you’d like to learn more about how to make guilt a force for good and change in your life, I’d love to pass along three recommendations for doing just that.
Three Recommendations to Make Guilt a Force for Change and Good
- Name the guilt—is it rational or irrational?
- If it’s rational guilt you’re experiencing, ask yourself, Would I do that thing again that made me feel guilty? Then reconnect with your values—a great way of doing this is to make a list of what values are most important to you. That way, you’ll have a physical reminder going forward. If it’s irrational guilt you’re feeling, commit to releasing it in any way you can. It might help to talk it through with someone you trust, to get perspective.
- Take appropriate action. This is for both types of guilt. Can you reach out to someone and apologize as my colleague did with her sister? Can you make a commitment to yourself to make a different choice—to get back into integrity with yourself—as I did with my ice cream?
Remember: It’s your choice whether to stay stuck in the muck of your guilt—to keep it buried and let it eat you up—or to try a different approach this time.
You can always choose how you look at any situation in your life.
Finally, I’ll leave you with a few writing prompts that are useful for gleaning some benefit from your guilt:
- I feel guilty when I think of _______________________.
- If someone looking on from the outside wrote the scene that’s the source of my guilt, what would it look like?
- If I could rewrite the scene that’s the source of my guilt, how would it look?
- What can I learn from the source of my guilt, and how can I apply those lessons to my life now?
- What will I do the next time guilty feelings get in the way of living my best life today?
Let me know how any/all of those writing exercises go for you. You know where to find me!
If you’re interested, you can find Robert Taibbi’s post about rational and irrational guilt HERE.