Healthy And Unhealthy Guilt :
Like all emotions, feelings of guilt evolved in humans for their ‘survival value.’ However, feeling guilty is (at minimum) an unpleasant sensation so what ‘survival value’, or, to put it simply, benefits, does the emotion bring?
The answer to this question is that healthy feelings of guilt motivate us to preserve our personal standards/morality/ethics which, in turn, makes our relationships with others more likely to thrive (e.g. our conscience makes it less likely we will treat others badly and risk losing them as allies/friends).
However, feelings of guilt can also be unhealthy and affect our lives adversely. Those of us who have suffered significant childhood trauma are particularly likely to experience unhealthy guilt which, unfortunately, often persists into adulthood. I provide some examples of how feelings of unhealthy guilt may develop below :
– a child whose parents divorce may irrational blame him/herself for this divorce
– a child whose parent dies may irrationally feel guilty moving on with his/her own life
– a child whose mother suffers from depression may irrationally feel guilty enjoying him/herself
– a child who is perpetually criticized and treated negatively by his/her parents may develop deep seated and pervasive feelings of irrational guilt that are likely to persist into adulthood in the absence of effective therapy.
WHAT ARE THE ADVERSE EFFECTS OF SUCH IRRATIONAL, UNHEALTHY GUILT?
- DISTRESS – this can range from the uncomfortable at one end of the spectrum to excruciating and paralyzing at the other.
- AN INABILITY PROPERLY TO FOCUS UPON ONE’S OWN NEEDS
- SELF-HATRED, EXTREMELY LOW SELF-ESTEEM, LACK OF CONFIDENCE
- FEELINGS OF SHAME – if we are made to feel guilty to a significant degree, and often enough, during childhood we can develop a constant, profound feeling of shame. [The difference between feelings of ‘guilt’ and feelings of ‘shame is that when we feel guilty we feel we’ve DONE something bad, but, when we feel shame, we feel that we ARE bad (i.e. intrinsically bad)]. Click here to read my article about How A Child’s View Of Their Own ‘Badness’ Is Perpetuated.
- POOR CONCENTRATION AND FOCUS (due to intrusive, guilt-ridden thoughts and ruminations)
- POOR PERFORMANCE AT SCHOOL OR WORK (linked to number 5, above)
- LOSS OF CAPACITY TO ENJOY LIFE / WON’T PERMIT ONESELF TO DO ENJOYABLE THINGS (due to feelings/beliefs along the lines of ‘I don’t deserve to be happy’ or ‘it would be morally wrong to enjoy myself’). Such feelings/beliefs can also be related to conscious or unconscious desires to punish oneself.
It can be seen, then, that, whilst ‘healthy guilt’ has benefits, ‘unhealthy guilt’ serves no beneficial purpose and is solely destructive.
THE LINK BETWEEN UNHEALTHY GUILT AND PSYCHIATRIC CONDITIONS :
Unhealthy guilt can be a symptom of certain psychiatric conditions such as depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Such guilt can be unremitting and overwhelming and, as such, should be treated by a relevantly qualified profession.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).