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 irrationally 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)]. See the following link 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.
DEALING WITH UNHEALTHY GUILT:
Research suggests that when it comes to overcoming feelings of guilt, treating oneself with self-compassion is more effective than raising one’s self-esteem.
Also, being preoccupied with feelings of guilt can derive from a faulty thinking style (often linked to depression) whereby we magnify in our minds what we have done wrong whilst minimizing what we have done right. Cognitive behavioural therapy can help to alleviate this problem.
Thirdly, we cannot allow ourselves to be defined solely by what we have done wrong in life. We can feel remorse for specific ways in which we have behaved badly, but this does not mean we should feel guilty all the time in the belief that we are an intrinsically ‘bad person.’ Indeed, believing we are intrinsically bad can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Fourth, it is necessary to remind ourselves that we are all flawed beings with the potential to act very badly should circumstances conspire against us. we must guard against ‘perfectionism’ and embrace self-acceptance.
Finally, rather than perpetually punish ourselves with feelings of guilt, we should focus instead on what we can learn from our mistakes and move on.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).