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.
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.