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Guilty as Charged! Now What?
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Guilty as Charged! Now What?

Guilty pleasures. Guilty conscience. Guilt trips.

As a society, we seem to be consumed by guilt, or at least with eliminating it from our lives. A search of a major online bookseller's website for the word "guilt" results in a list of over 500 titles. You can cook without guilt. Diet without guilt. Eat chocolate or fried foods without guilt. Parent your children without guilt. Be a guilt-free working parent or a guilt-free single parent. Be a guilt-free golfer. Or maybe you want to recognize guilt, understand guilt, overcome guilt, be liberated from guilt, put an end to guilt? There's a title for you.

But Is Guilt Really Such a Bad Thing?

Webster's Dictionary defines guilt as:

  • The fact of being responsible for wrongdoing or a crime
  • A feeling of responsibility for having done something wrong

So what's wrong with taking a little responsibility? Nothing. Problems arise when we confuse guilt with shame, says June Tangney, PhD, a professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and editor of Self Conscious Emotions: The Psychology of Shame, Guilt, Embarrassment and Pride. "People generally feel guilt when they've done something that violates their own moral standards," says Dr. Tangney. "Guilt motivates people to make things right when they do something wrong. It's a helpful, adaptive way to feel bad."

What Is Good Guilt?

Muriel Savikas, PhD, agrees. In her book Guilt Is Good: What Working Moms Need to Know, Savikas acknowledges that society continues to treat guilt as something undesirable. But that's not really right, she says, because guilt is a natural part of the human makeup and a necessary part of our value system that motivates us to change. According to Savikas, good guilt allows us to look at what we can change and what our goals are.

What Is Bad Guilt?

Guilt results when we feel bad about a behavior, says Tangney. Shame, on the other hand, is what we feel when we feel bad about ourselves. Guilt encourages us to take action, to right a wrong. Shame is a powerful, overwhelming emotion that results when our internal judge and jury declare us guilty with no hope of salvation. Irrational guilt—feelings of guilt that paralyze us and prevent us from rectifying a situation—is likely to arise from feelings of shame, Tangney says.

"Negative guilt is the guilt that allows us to beat ourselves up and that drags us down rather than turning things into a positive and moving on," Savikas adds.

How Do You Recognize and Use Guilt?

"Guilt is a very misunderstood emotion," Tangney says. "You have to be able to use guilt constructively and then get over it without feeling shame." Listen to your feelings, she adds, and use guilt as a constructive emotion to remedy situations you feel badly about. Even if there's nothing you can do to fix the problem, guilt can prompt you to change your behavior in the future.

Feelings of guilt often arise from unrealistic expectations that we set for ourselves or that others set for us. So it's important to examine your feelings and review what's expected of you within the context of your life. Pay attention to your self-talk—what you say silently to yourself. Negative self-talk or self-scolding should be a wake up call, says Savikas.

If you yell at your child and then find yourself thinking, "I'm an awful parent," Stop. You are generalizing too much from this single event, warns Tangney. Feeling like you're an awful parent is not going to make things better for your child or for you. Instead, focus on the behavior—your yelling and why your child caused you to yell—and not on your parenting abilities. Then you can start to fix things.

Are You Feeling Manipulated by Guilt?

Let's face it. There are times when people use guilt to manipulate us into doing things they want us to do. And then again, there are times when we do the same thing. As Tangney points out, guilt is a handy tool for helping us reflect on our motivations and on our relationships with others. It can also be useful in helping to recognize when we're being manipulated. It's important to develop a sense of self-awareness so that we're able to see those guilty little red flags when they pop up and be aware of our behavior so we can gauge whether we're responding out of guilt or out of a genuine desire to help.

Here's what to do:

  • If you feel someone is pushing your guilt buttons to achieve their own ends, ask yourself whether their request is reasonable. If not, address the issue with them directly. Tell them they're not being fair and express your feelings honestly. And don't resort to doing what they ask if you feel it's inappropriate. That breeds resentment.
  • If you find yourself unable to confront others when you're feeling manipulated or if you are feeling overwhelmed by guilty feelings that you can't pinpoint or resolve, it may be time to seek professional help.

In his book A Year of Health Hints: 365 Practical Ways to Feel Better and Live Longer, author Don Powell offers the following advice: "Guilt is a by-product of all the 'shoulds' people accumulate on their mental lists of things to do."

To help you distinguish between what's right for you to do and what you do because you're guilt ridden, Powell suggests:

  • Don't let others' values dictate the way you live your life. Decide for yourself what's important to you, what you value, or the way you wish to be.
  • Don't expect to be pleasant, wise, and even-tempered at all times. It's normal to feel irritable or angry occasionally. Feeling guilty about negative emotions is futile.
  • Forgive yourself for mistakes in judgment. Learn something from your mistakes. Make them work for you in the future.
  • Take satisfaction in your accomplishments, rather than dwelling on your shortcomings.

My 11-year-old son has even weighed in on the topic. When asked for his views on guilt, my future philosopher said, "It helps me learn what things not to do again because they make me feel bad." Smart kid. And I only feel a little guilty for bragging.

RESOURCES:

American Psychological Association
http://www.apa.org/

Mental Health America
http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Canadian Psychiatric Association
http://www.cpa-apc.org

Canadian Psychological Association
http://www.cpa.ca/cpasite/home.asp

References:

Guilt. Merriam-Webster website. Available at: http://www.merriam-webster.com/.

Theories about the cause of depression. Psychological Self-help website. Available at: http://mentalhelp.net/psyhelp/chap6/chap6i.htm.



Last reviewed February 2008 by Ryan Estévez, MD, PhD, MPH

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.


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