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Can You Tell Good Guilt From Bad?


If you haven’t felt bad about something in the past 24 hours, might want to check your pulse. Why? Because guilt, over things big and small, is rampant no matter who you are. Take me for instance. I waste stupid amounts of time feeling guilty over dumb stuff, like eating a second macaroon, sleeping an hour later than I’d planned to, reading something easy instead of writing something hard. The list goes on. My guilt reflex is on a hair trigger. 

But then there are times I feel guilty in ways that motivate me and matter, like when I’m traipsing home, arms loaded with groceries past a homeless woman. Or when I am unnecessarily short with my mom on the phone. When I rush to judgment. Guilt taps me on the shoulder and raises an eyebrow, and I know I need to do something. So I donate to a charity, drop a dollar in a cup, apologize, own up to a fear. That’s guilt doing its noblest work. 

Like all emotions, guilt has a function. Researchers will tell you that guilt has been shown to motivate prosocial behavior, meaning it’s good for yourself and for others (Dartmouth researchers say that “good deeds are motivated by guilt). But if morals have a compass, guilt has a scale. The more you take on, the heavier it gets. Compounded guilt becomes unwieldy, unproductive and downright damaging. It can leach away your self esteem and greatly affect your mood. 

In other words, my hair-trigger guilt doesn’t make me better at life or a better person. In fact, when left to run amok, it is no more functional than unchecked fear: Guilt can’t do its job if you feel it all the time. Trust your instincts, and take action when you can, though, and it can be a tremendous force for good.

I took a Model Mugging self defense course several years ago (which, dollar for dollar, was one of the most worthwhile classes I’ve ever taken), and what I learned is that the more confident, aware, and prepared I am, the less scared I have to be. Because I can allow my intuition to sniff out real trouble. If you’re afraid of every single person on the street, every place you go, and paint everything in one shade of fear, you lose the ability to detect situations where you should actually be on guard. 

The same rule applies to guilt: You do yourself a disservice by taking on mounds of it because then you don’t allow the real, worthwhile guilt to stand out. When you let guilt accumulate indiscriminately, you lose your ability to sense when in fact you really are guilty — and when you should take action. 

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