Guilt is a healthy emotion that informs you that you have made a mistake. Guilt is healthy because it confirms that you have a moral compass. The only people who cannot feel guilt are psychopaths, so be thankful if you can feel guilt.
Guilt is closely related to shame, but the difference is stark. Guilt informs you that you MADE a mistake, while shame tells you that you ARE a mistake.
According to Susan Krauss’ article, “The Definitive Guide to Guilt“, There are several types of guilt:
- Guilt for something you did becomes evident if you actually did something wrong. It’s appropriate to feel guilty when you’ve done something wrong. Feeling the emotion of guilt for an action deserving of remorse is normal; to not feel guilty, in these cases, may be a sign of psychopathy. The problems occur when you ruminate over this guilt. An action in the past cannot be changed, no matter how much you wish it would. Accept the fact that this happened, apologize to the person or persons you harmed, and then figure out how to avoid committing the same act in the future.
- Guilt for something you didn’t do, but want to can arise if you are thinking about committing an act in which you deviate from your own moral code or engage in behavior that is dishonest, unfaithful or illegal. This is a tough type of guilt to handle. It’s true that you didn’t actually commit the act, and so you’re still sitting on the moral high ground. However, we all know that the very fact that you’re contemplating an act that violates your own standards can be as guilt-provoking as the act itself.
- Guilt for something you think you did can cause you to experience almost as much guilt as if you actually committed the act. An example is the “magical” belief that you can jinx people by thinking about them in a negative way. At some level you “know” that you’re being illogical, but it’s hard to rid yourself completely of this belief.
- Guilt that you didn’t do enough to help someone can cause what is called “compassion fatigue,” which can occur among people who offer continued informal support to others in need. Adding to the overall emotional drain of the situation is the guilt you overlay on top of the fatigue because you think you should be doing more.
- Guilt that you are doing better than someone else may show up as “survivor guilt which is often experienced by combat veterans who outlive their fellow troops. Survivor guilt also occurs when people who lose families, friends, or neighbors in disasters themselves remain untouched or, at least, alive.
John Grohol offers 5 Tips for dealing with guilt:
- Recognize the kind of guilt you have and its purpose: Guilt works best to help us grow and mature when our behavior has been offensive or hurtful to others or ourselves. If we feel guilty for saying something offensive to another person, or for focusing on our careers with an 80-hour work-week over our family, that’s a warning sign with a purpose: change your behavior or else lose your friends or family. We can still choose to ignore our guilt then, but then we do so at our own risk. This is known as “healthy” or “appropriate” guilt because it serves a purpose in trying to help redirect our moral or behavioral compass.
- Make amends or changes sooner rather than later: If your guilt is for a specific and rational purpose – e.g., it’s healthy guilt – take action to fix the problem behavior. While many of us are gluttons for self-punishment, ongoing guilt weighs us down as we try and move forward in life. It’s easy enough to apologize to someone whom we’ve offended by a careless remark. It’s a little more challenging to not only recognize how your 80-hour-a-week career may be harming your family, but to also change your work schedule
- Accept that you did something wrong, but move on: If you did something wrong or hurtful, you will have to accept that you cannot change the past. But you can make amends for your behavior, if and when it’s appropriate. Do so, apologize, or make-up for the inappropriate behavior in a timely manner, but then let it go. The more we focus on believing we need to do something more, the more it will continue to bother us and interfere with our relationships with others.
- Learning from our behaviors: Guilt’s purpose isn’t to make us feel bad just for the sake of it. The feeling of guilt is trying to get our attention so that we can learn something from the experience.
- Perfection doesn’t exist in anyone: Nobody is perfect, even our friends or family members who appear to lead perfect, guilt-free lives. Striving for perfection in any part of our lives is a recipe for failure, since it can never be attained.