By Jonathan Decker, Clinical Director, LMFT
In my observation there are two schools of thought about guilt. The first is that it's a healthy emotion that inspires us to change our behavior, while the second argues that guilt contributes to feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness that impede our growth. So is guilt healthy or harmful?
The truth is, it can be either. Like fire, guilt can be beneficial or destructive depending on its use. Here are two simple questions to determine whether your guilt is healthy or harmful.
Is your guilt directed at your behavior or at yourself?
Healthy guilt is directed at a behavior. It leads you to think “I'm better than this. I need to do all that I can to make this right and behave differently in the future.” You feel bad, not because you're a “bad person,” but because you've acted badly. This type of guilt motivates self-improvement, confidence, and accountability. You refuse to be defined by your worst moments, but are humbled by them and learn from them.
Unhealthy guilt, on the other hand, is directed at an individual. It leads you to think “I'm worthless. I'll always be a jerk. I'm a screw-up and a loser. Why even try?” This guilt contributes to despair and self-loathing. It perpetuates bad behavior because you cease to believe that you can change for the better. In this case you internalize the guilt and allow bad behavior to define you.
Healthy guilt, while a tough pill to swallow, is bittersweet because it's bolstered by hope that you can make things better and/or be better. It's hopeful. Unhealthy guilt is hopeless and makes you want to give up.
Do you feel guilty about choices or about circumstances?