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Can You Tell Good Guilt From Bad?

To manage your everyday guilt, you have to make a decision about what you will and will not feel bad about. Experts from Colorado Health Partnerships offer a couple rules of thumb. They say that guilt may be a problem for you if: You feel vaguely guilty all the time, and you haven’t done anything wrong, or you feel really guilty over something minor — you told a white lie, say, and now you can’t sleep because of it. It’s also an issue if you feel guilty when good things happen to you. (That’s self-loathing thinly disguised as guilt. It says, “I don’t deserve great things,” and it serves no one, especially you.) 

So how can you tell the difference between good guilt and bad? Ask yourself these questions every time you feel that pang in your gut: 

  • What am I feeling guilt about specifically?
  • When was the last time I felt bad about this? 
  • How often does this particular guilt emerge and why? 
  • What active role, if any, did I play in bringing this guilt about?
  • Is there something I can do to make things right?
  • Does the guilt alone seem to serve some purpose, and what is it doing for me? 

That last one is key because, while guilt is more often than not a signal (usually that someone’s been hurt or disadvantaged because of an action you took), sometimes the guilt itself can become a habit. Rather than motivate a positive action, that keeps you in a negative state. That’s when you have to ask why: Does staying ‘guilty’ somehow compensate for something else you feel bad about? 

When guilt becomes a go-to emotion, it doesn’t make you humble or happy; it blocks gratitude and compassion — and keeps you focused on yourself. Once you relieve yourself of unnecessary guilt by acknowledging what isn’t all your fault, you can start taking ownership of what actually is within your realm of control and do something to make yourself (and others) feel better. 

I welcome the occasional authentic pang of guilt because it keeps me honest, makes me aware that the world is not as kind to others as it has been to me, and reminds me that I can, in fact, be kinder. It’s a sign that I have not gone numb, and I’m grateful for that. Guilt, like fear, or stress, or even happiness, is part of a delicate balance of emotions that keeps us all in check and in control. And though no one likes how guilt feels in the short term, if used correctly, it can ultimately help us both feel better and behave better.

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