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Does Feeling Guilty Serve a Purpose? If So, What?

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Most people will feel guilty at some time or another.  It is not a pleasant experience.  It could be for example, because you did something to upset someone or when remembering a time when you behaved in a way that was unkind to someone, perhaps you boasted about how well you did while playing at a casino.

It does seem that most of us can have guilty feelings quite easily, so perhaps it serves us in some way?    But sometimes feelings of guilt can be debilitating.  Fortunately, psychological research has provided us with some useful answers in how to deal with this.

When we have feelings of guilt it is letting us know that in some way we have flouted our own moral standard. It is a feeling of regret about something that we had a part in or something maybe we failed to take action on.

Everyone feels guilt but people experience it differently and this will depend on their personality and life experiences. Very empathic people who are more socially engaged may be more disposed to feeling guilty than people who are more narcissistic and care less about social relationships.

Guilt and shame are often contrasted.  Guilt is when you feel that you did something wrong whereas shame is feeling that something is not right with you for doing that wrong thing. Feeling shame is generally not helpful and can cause a person to socially withdraw.  Guilt, however, can lead to positive or negative outcomes.

People can feel guilty about all kinds of things and different life situations. They may feel guilty about the state of the environment which is termed eco-guilt. People surviving unharmed from a very dangerous situation may have survivor’s guilt. People also feel guilty when they do something they shouldn’t have or didn’t do something they should have.

Guilt can be a positive thing

Feeling guilty can be beneficial to us as humans.  Feeling guilty lets us know that our moral compass is functioning and that we know what is right and what is wrong and helping us in caring for one another.   Feeling guilty may lead us to help others when we see them in difficult situations, making peace with them or perhaps being more generous, which will relieve us of some of the guilt we may feel. Feeling guilty may also prompt people to apologize for something they did wrong and thereby making things more equitable.

Guilt can also be helpful in our intimate relationships by making us behave better to our partner or to apologize when we fail to do so.

When we watch on television the terrible things that are happening around the world, wars, famines or disease it may cause us to feel guilty and prompt us to take action. We may be inspired to help with a monetary donation or to volunteer in some humanitarian project.  Watching other people actively helping others can also be quilt-provoking and in turn motivate us to do more to help.

Guilt can become debilitating

Guilt can be negative and become all-consuming. This means it has become “maladaptive”. Two kinds of guilt are not good for us and can cause damage. The first is free-floating guilt which happens when you get a general feeling of guilt.  Basically, you feel that something is not good about you. The second is contextual guilt.  In this situation, you basically take too much responsibility for something that has happened. For example, continuing to help your ex-partner organize their life because you continue to feel bad for breaking up the relationship.

In both the above, nothing will really help you to relieve these feelings of guilt.  The feelings will continue and impact your actions. Therefore, they are maladaptive.  For instance, feeling constantly that you are not a good person will likely affect how and if you are able to form new relationships.  Feeling that you are a bad person may lead you to sabotage these new relationships because you have a deep feeling that you are undeserving. Feeling guilty all the time, you will be continually trying to alleviate these feelings.  This will likely lead you to be constantly anxious and also become depressed.

Maladaptive guilt may occur when, for example, you feel guilty while watching bad things on the news but are not sure exactly where the guilt is coming from.  It could be that it becomes a common feeling.    It can also occur if you find yourself taking personal responsibility for the bad incident you are watching on the news even though you can do little to change the situation.

Taking appropriate action is the way to deal with having a guilty conscious. Therefore, if you are experiencing eco-guilt, it could be that making some changes in the way that you live so you are living in a more sustainable manner is the thing to do.You could also become involved in some projects that deal with issues concerning the environment.  If you are experiencing guilt feelings about the way in which you behaved with a friend, it will definitely help to relieve your guilt feelings if you apologise.

Experiencing survivor’s guilt can be assuaged by writing yourself a letter, forgiving yourself. The letter should detail the areas in which you want to take responsibility. It should also detail your feelings of remorse and include an apology to yourself.

Summing up

Ultimately, we need to understand that we all make mistakes.  It is important to let go of the constant feelings of guilt.  Life isn’t always fair and constantly blaming ourselves is counter-productive and draining.  We need to find the energy to make good changes in the world around us and in order to do this, we need to feel good about ourselves.

Feeling guilty is alerting us to the fact that our moral standards have been flouted.  Research does show that often feeling guilty can be positive in that it is adaptive and prompts us into connecting and helping other people.  But as pointed out above, too much guilt can have negative consequences, like taking on too much responsibility for others. The best way to alleviate guilt is to take some kind of appropriate action.

David Tobin did his degree in psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. He is interested in mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.

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