Recently, I was asked to write on the topic of guilt, and I was surprised to realize I hadn’t already done so. Interwoven between all of the stories I have written so far has been this elusive and plaguing emotion. How do you know when guilt is a good thing? How do you learn from it? What do you do when it’s bad? These are all questions I want to discuss today.
Good vs. Bad
Guilt alone is actually a good thing. It is a warning sign that you may have crossed a moral, ethical, or legal boundary. Feeling guilty is a good if it helps you identify where you have done something wrong and how to fix it. The Bible called this type of guilt “Godly sorrow” because it actually helps point us to how to rebalance ourselves. For example, you may feel guilt for dinging your neighbor’s car, and you won’t feel right until you go tell him and share insurance information.
“Worldly sorrow” is guilt that festers into a sense of negative self worth and hopelessness. It is a feeling like you will never be worthy of anything good; it’s feeling you are only ever going to be a disappointment and failure. This kind of bad guilt feeds depression and suicidal thoughts. It keeps people trapped in negative spirals and unable to get ahead in life.
How to Learn From Guilt
The first question I ask myself when I feel guilty is why.
To get to the bottom of why you feel guilt, you have to be honest with yourself. Assess your own actions and cycle through your activities. Consider the following questions:
- When was the last time I felt free of guilt?
- What happened to change that?
- Were these events or actions something I did wrong that I need to correct?
- If my guilt is not from something I did or said, is it from something I contemplated?
- If my guilt is not from anything I have done or thought about, is it from something done or said to me?
The second question I ask myself after I discover the why is whether or not this is my responsibility.
If you know why you are feeling guilty, it is important to screen if your guilt is because of your own values or the expectations of others. For example, you can feel guilt for saying something hurtful to a friend, but you can also feel guilt because someone asked you to do something you haven’t done yet.
Appropriate Guilt vs. Irrational Guilt
Feeling guilt is appropriate for regulating behavior, but it can take a turn for the worst. Some people feel strong connections to their own emotions and the emotions of others and are said to be prone to guilt. Others suffer from irrational guilt where they feel responsible for stuff that is not their fault or they think things are worse than they actually are. For more about how to keep guilt from spiraling out of control, check out this article.
Guilt is incredibly uncomfortable–but it is meant to better us. I remember, when I was a child, I always felt guilty when I picked on my sibling. That was a good thing because it led me to change my behavior and treat her better. As I got older, I wrestled with guilt over decisions. For example, I felt guilty about choosing a college closer to home versus one that gave me a scholarship to move two states away. In both cases, my guilt caused me to evaluate my beliefs and make better choices.
Sometimes, however, I do struggle with guilt over things beyond my control like hidden secrets or hurting someone’s feelings by accident. What I am learning in these situations is to not obsess about what I cannot control. Rather, I must take life one day at a time and one decision at a time moving forward based on the ideals and values I choose to build my life on.
Your mental health is important, and guilt left unchecked can contribute to anxiety, depression, and a lot of other toxic things. If you struggle with guilt more than occasionally, consider discussing your feelings with a medical professional or counselor to avoid long-term negative effects.