Is it Okay to Feel Guilty?
Is it okay to feel guilty when you think you’ve done something wrong? The answer to this question largely depends on the sort of guilt you are experiencing. Some guilt can be rational while some can be pointless and destructive. If you are experiencing the latter kind of guilt, then you probably don’t even realize you are being irrational. You may simply think that you should feel guilty, that youdeserve to feel guilty, and, as a result, continue to torment yourself; and even depress yourself. This blog will give you some pointers on how to identify this irrational type of guilt and point the way to avoiding it.
Whenever you feel guilty you perceive yourself to have violated a moral principle that you hold. Moreover, the objects of guilt, what you feel guilty about, are always internalized moral principles. By “internalized” I mean principles you think you ought or should obey. These principles are often internalized as a result of socialization. Now, one type of irrational guilt has to do with the way you have internalized your moral principles. Of course, you should never murderanyone, so this moral imperative may seem to be without exception. But notice that the word “murder” itself means wrongful killing, and clearly it is wrong to commit wrongful killing. Inevitably, in the mainstream of life, these principles will come into conflict with one another, which means that you cannot rationally expect to satisfy all of them all of the time. In such cases, it is a matter of weighing and balancing one principle over another. So should you feel guilty if you break one of your moral principles for a morally overriding reason? There is a difference between the emotion of regret and that of guilt. You can regret having to lie to spare someone serious harm. Of course, it would have been better if you didn’t have to lie. But this doesn’t mean you need to feel guilty. Guilty feelings are always gnawing and uncomfortable. Putting yourself through such pain when you have done your best to deal with a situation of moral conflict is not a legitimate occasion to upset yourself. You made your decision; you weighed the pros and cons and you came to a decision. That is all you can humanly do in a case of moral conflict, so it is not reasonable to sit and ruminate about your decision.
Sometimes the moral principles that you have internalized are themselvesself-defeating and unreasonable. These are “moral” only in the sense that you believe that they’re moral. Thus, you may think that you have a moral duty to worry about things and you feel guilty when you don’t. “If I let my guard down even for a minute, something awful might happen to them. Under the guise of such a moral duty to worry yourself sick, you may fail to question the rationality of what you are doing to yourself and to others who must live with your chronic worry problem, including the kids. Indeed, if it is your moral duty to worry, then it is beyond question that you MUST worry. But there is no good reason to think you have such a moral duty in the first place–unless you think that morality exists merely to make human life miserable rather than to improve it.
Do you have a moral duty to take good care of your kids? Do you have an additional moral duty to worry about taking good care of your kids? Some people, quite a number of them, hold the moral principle that says you must be perfect. This type of moral charge is unrealistic and therefore unattainable. As a result, those who have internalized a perfectionistic “moral” principle will experience intense guilt when they have not succeeded at being perfect-which is always or almost always. So, in embracing such an over-demanding credo, you sentence yourself to a life of unremitting stress; for even when you succeed at something, there’s always the impending possibility of not succeeding in the future. As a result, successes are seldom enjoyed and are often the occasion to worry about the possibility of future failings.
But even if your moral principles are rational, you can still experience irrational guilt; and this can be true even when you truly have violated one of your principles. Such guilt can be the self-abasing type. Here, the guilt is sustained by self-damnation. Thus you are demoralized by your perceived moral infraction and think yourself worthless.
This is an extremely destructive and self-defeating form of guilt. For if you tell yourself that you are worthless, you have decreed once and for all that you are incapable of making constructive changes in the future. If you do something that you think is wrong, it is your action that is wrong, NOT YOU. You are distinct from your action and therefore it is a fallacy to infer YOUR unworthiness from the unworthiness of your action. So guilt that rejects the doer rather than the deed is irrational, hence unacceptable guilt.
However, guilt that rates the deed instead of the doer can still be irrational. Thus, you might exaggerate just how bad your action really was. Realizing just how serious your offense is in relation to other offenses need not get you off the guilt hook but it can help to regulate the intensity of your guilt. Not uncommonly, people feel guilty about violating a moral principle that, on careful inspection, they really wouldn’t accept. I asked, “If the person best at making decisions should be the decision-maker, and you are best at real estate and financial decisions, then who should be making thosedecisions?” “I should be making those decisions!” she exclaimed. Woman too can “wear the pants”!
So, is there any guilt that’s constructive? Some psychologists have claimed that guilt is always a destructive emotion, but that is a rather extreme view. Unlike the forms discussed so far, constructive guilt must not be: based on absolutistic moral principles; ruminating; based on irrational principles such as the duty to worry or to be perfect; supported by self-abasement; exaggerated; or based on a moral principle that, on reflection, you would reject;
Accordingly, here are six questions you can ask yourself to see if your guilt is legitimate:
Have you allowed for reasonable exceptions to your moral principle? Remember, you may have been caught in a case of moral conflict and simply had to make a decision.
Have you avoided ruminating about whether or not you did the right thing in a situation of moral conflict, keeping yourself from going over and over your decision ad nauseam?
Are you sticking to rating your action rather than condemning yourself for violating the moral principle in question? Once you perceive that you have done something wrong, guilt can be rational when it moves you to learn from your misdeed and to make changes in the future. In so doing, you can help to reduce your excessive guilt.
Did you really violate a moral principle that you accept?Remember, the principle in question may be one you were brought up to believe but is self-defeating and not even consistent with your other beliefs.
If your answer to even one of these six questions is no, then your guilt is irrational and you are pointlessly upsetting yourself.
While some occasional guilty feelings can be a spur to making constructive changes, excessive, chronic guilt can destroy the quality of your life. Paying careful attention to the factors discussed in this blog can be an important start to overcoming your irrational guilt.
For further discussion and exercises you can do to overcome irrational guilt, read my book, The Dutiful Worry: How to Stop Compulsive Worry Without Feeling Guilty (also available in Kindle edition)
Ah, feeling guilty. I used to think my entire life was run by my feelings of guilt. Everything I did or thought seemed to be governed by how guilty I felt that day.
I’d be feeling guilty about everything and anything. I’d feel guilty about so many things and my life really did seem to be just reacting to one feeling of guilt after another.
It’s very draining and distressing living with a constant feeling of guilt. to basically 7 main reasons and usually you’ll be dealing with not just one of these but actually a combination of them:
1. You feel guilty when you’re trying to avoid something
Guilt often comes from trying to avoid something. To eliminate those feelings of guilt, it really helps if you can take a moment and ask yourself what are you thinking about? Are you thinking about what you don’t want (people being mad, etc.) or what you do want? Continuing to focus on how guilty you feel will only serve to keep you stuck feeling anxious and confused. I also find that as long as you’re focused on the feelings of guilt, it doesn’t matter what you do, you’re going to feel guilty because that’s what you’re concentrating on. You’re focused on the guilt instead of the real situation.
You’re able to take action which is one of the things that really helps to eliminate those guilt feelings. But, you’re not just taking action to relieve your feelings of guilt, you’re taking action to solve the real problem or situation.
2. Reacting to a situation instead of choosing your response
A situation happens and without really thinking about it you react by feeling guilty.
You feel guilty for what you’ve done.
I went through a situation recently where one of my parents was quite sick. I instantly felt guilty because I hadn’t spent a lot of time with them recently. You use the guilt to make positive changes in your life.
Can you see how easily it is to get caught up in the feelings of guilt and to focus on that instead of the real issue?
Once you ask yourself if you’re blindly reacting or calmly choosing how to respond to an event, then you’ll be able to decide how you want to proceed. It goes a long way to being able to move past those feelings of guilt. It’s a subtle difference but it does make a huge difference. 3. Someone pushing your buttons
You’re always going to come across those people who are absolute experts at making you feel guilty. What’s the real issue deep down that’s happening? What’s really happening is that you’re simply reacting to the other person’s words. They don’t make you mad or make you feel guilty. Once you deal with those feelings, then you’ll notice the comments but you’ll no longer react by feeling guilty. Often, even just the awareness of why you previously reacted to certain words will be enough to stop you from continuing to react in the future.
4. Not Forgiving Yourself
A big aspect of guilt can be because you simply don’t allow yourself to make mistakes or you never forgive yourself for things that happened in the past.
Everyone makes mistakes. Making mistakes is what makes us human and it’s how we learn. You also need to know that you made what you thought was the best decision with the facts you had at the time.
5. Conditioned Response
For example, if you’re on an airplane and it’s just about to crash, your ingrained belief of helping others before yourself could be a disaster in that situation. So again, it comes back down to taking the time to really think about what’s happening in the situation and not just blindly reacting.
When you catch yourself saying “should” about something, ask yourself how you would feel about the situation if you simply dropped that word? A lot of times, just by doing that, you’ll suddenly feel so much better about the situation.
7. Anxiety and Fear
You allow your feelings of anxiety and fear take over your rational thought.
If you’re aware of this, then it’s easier to let go of all the “what if’s….” worrying because you suddenly realize you’re focusing on the wrong thing. If you can do that, then you’ll suddenly find the situation is nowhere near as overwhelming as it first appeared. You’ll also be able to stop those guilty feelings before they start.
Dealing With Feeling Guilty
Learning how to deal with guilt comes down to understanding what’s really happening behind your feelings of guilt. You won’t be blindly reacting and finding that nothing you do eases your guilty conscience. This way, you rule your life, not your emotions and fear. Use those emotion so you can confidently move forwards.
Emotions are so valuable if you take the time to listen to them. So, no more struggling with guilt. Appreciate your feelings of guilt because they really can tell you a lot about what’s really going on.
- Just feeling Lost and Guilty (freedefender.wordpress.com)
- Ethics without principles (3ammagazine.com)
- Ethics (ivythesis.typepad.com)
- The Moral Saint Fallacy (sustainabilityethics.com)
- You: The good, the bad, and the guilty: Anticipating feelings of guilt predicts ethical behavior (labspaces.net)