Samaritan Counseling Center
No comments
March 31, 2024

I have often told patients that, “Guilt is the most useless emotion we have unless it leads us to change our behavior.” While this statement contains a grain of truth, it is far too simplified. True, guilt is the emotion we experience when we have done something wrong. It’s the gnawing sense that we have done something we shouldn’t have or have not done something we should have. Authentic or true guilt can be a positive force for change.

Guilt can also be a negative, or toxic, emotion if we feel responsible for something when we are not. Quoting a Jewish novelist from a true story titled The Teacher of Warsaw, “Guilt is not a good thing. It accuses us, condemns us, and delivers a very harsh sentence.” Guilt tells us that we are not enough, not getting it right, or should be doing something more when it’s not true. Guilt nags, leads us to beat ourselves up for past choices, or to saying yes when the best answer is no. We can squeeze the joy out of life unless it is recognized and addressed.

Ironically, the word guilt appears in the Bible only six times, all in the Old Testament, three of those are in Psalms. Guilty appears four times in the New Testament. True, “sin” implies guilt.

Positive or authentic guilt usually serves us well; it can motivate us to do positive things or keep us from doing or saying hurtful things. For example, it helps us consider the needs of others, leads to acts of compassion, and encourages honesty. It helps us take responsibility for our actions. It can help us realize when we have said or done something to hurt someone’s feelings. Our true sense of guilt can lead us to admit guilt, apologize, and take action to make amends.

Toxic guilt makes us feel responsible when we are not. It can damage our relationship with ourselves and with others. It can cause us to blame ourselves for everything or take responsibility for the behavior of others when we are not responsible. An example is someone who believes they are responsible for everyone in their life, thinking that they must take care of another’s problems and abandon their own self-care.

Guilt often comes when our values are out of alignment with our actions, which means we may have to examine our values. It is often not easy to recognize that we are feeling guilty about something. If we can recognize or name guilt, we can disarm it. Steps to dealing with false or toxic guilt include labeling the behavior or thought that is causing guilt, determining whether it is accurate or not, asking ourselves if there is evidence that supports our feelings of guilt, determining what would be a more accurate or truthful thought, and replacing the lie to ourselves with truth.

If we are truly guilty, we need to admit it. We need to determine what harm we have caused and which expectations of ourselves we violated. We make a sincere apology and determine whether we need to make amends or how we might stop further damage. We need to examine the lessons we can learn and how we can change our behavior in the future. A person who is truly sorry for that behavior should change that behavior and resolve not to repeat it.

Guilt controls our behavior in ways that we may not recognize. We might decide not to leave a relationship to avoid hurting another person who has become too dependent because we believe that person needs us. We stay in relationships (friendships) we really want to end “when helping you is killing me.” We help family when we are enabling them because “they are my (grown) children.” We say yes (repeatedly) to mom when it’s inconvenient or infringes on our life. We stay in a job (or marriage) we don’t want that has become too demanding (or after a spouse’s repeated cheating) because “they need me and can’t function without me.”

These are a few situations in which guilt controls our behavior. The emotion of guilt is much more complicated than we realize. Next time guilt overwhelms you, take a few moments to analyze whether it is “authentic” or “toxic” in that particular situation.

You Might Also Like

The Samaritan Counseling Center (SCC) is here to provide healing. A not-for-profit organization, we’re committed to providing fully-integrated, high quality, team-oriented, cost-efficient counseling and educational programming.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *