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 bebetter. It's hopeful. Unhealthy guilt is hopeless and makes you want to give up.
Do you feel guilty about choices or about circumstances?
Sometimes people feel guilty about things beyond their control. For example, a person with a crippling illness may feel guilty that loved ones have to take care of them. Other examples include survivor's guilt and feeling guilty about success while others struggle. This kind of guilt helps no one. The only healthy guilt is over things we've chosen to do or say. It is purposeful because it helps us to make amends and better choices.
If you're feeling guilty because unforeseeable hardships cause you to lean on others, choose instead to be thankful for their help and empowered to improve your situation or attitude. If you're feeling guilty because your situation is good, choose to feel empathy for others and a desire to help them. If you're feeling guilty because you survived something that others didn't, choose instead to feel gratitude and to make the most of the gift of your life.
In short, choose to use guilt to enrich your life and make you better, not to drag you down and deplete your self-worth.
Jonathan Decker is the clinical director of Your Family Expert. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist, husband, and father of five. Jonathan earned a masters degree in family therapy from Auburn University as well as a bachelor's degree in clinical psychology from Brigham Young University. He is an actor, author, and television personality.