Is it okay to feel guilty when you think you've done something wrong?  The answer to this question largely depends on the sort of guilt you are experiencing. Some guilt can be rational while some can be pointless and destructive.   If you are experiencing the latter kind of guilt, then you probably don't even realize you are being irrational.  You may simply think that you should feel guilty, that you deserve to feel guilty, and, as a result, continue to torment yourself; and even depress yourself. This blog will give you some pointers on how to identify this irrational type of guilt and point the way to avoiding it.

Whenever you feel guilty you perceive yourself to have violated a moral principle that you hold.  Moreover, the objects of guilt, what you feel guilty about, are always internalized moral principles.  By "internalized" I mean principles you think you ought or should obey. These principles are often internalized as a result of socialization.  For example, you may have been socialized to think that it is wrong to have extra-marital sex, and feel guilty, even "filthy," after engaging in such sex.

Now, one type of irrational guilt has to do with the way you have internalized your moral principles.  In particular, you may hold them as absolutes, as always binding without exception, and thus make them too demanding.  For example, you may think that you should never lie, never harm anyone, and always keep your promises.  However, if you cast your moral principles as such absolutes, then you set yourself up for needless guilt by demanding what is impossible.

Quite obviously, some forms of lying or deceit are morally blameworthy but not all of them are.  For example, sometimes being honest is not the best thing to be when it can cause serious harm to someone.  These would be exceptional circumstances but this is just the point:  All moral principles, at least all of them capable of guiding human action, admit of exceptions. Even the proscription against killing can have exceptions as in some cases of self-defense.  Of course, you should never murder anyone, so this moral imperative may seem to be without exception.  But notice that the word "murder" itself means wrongful killing, and clearly it is wrong to commit wrongful killing.  But this is circular and  gives you no moral guidance unless you are already able to distinguish between killing that is wrongful and that which isn't.

So, if you think of your action-guiding moral principles as being unconditional, you have made them too demanding. Inevitably, in the mainstream of life, these principles will come into conflict with one another, which means that you cannot rationally expect to satisfy all of them all of the time. In such cases, it is a matter of weighing and balancing one principle over another.  Thus you may decide that not harming your best friend is more important than telling her the truth.

So should you feel guilty if you break one of your moral principles for a morally overriding reason?  The answer is no!  There is a difference between the emotion of regret and that of guilt.  You can regret having to lie to spare someone serious harm. Of course, it would have been better if you didn't have to lie.  But this doesn't mean you need to feel guilty.  Guilty feelings are always gnawing and uncomfortable.  Indeed, they can be quite stressful.  Putting yourself through such pain when you have done your best to deal with a situation of moral conflict is not a legitimate occasion to upset yourself.  "Well, I definitely would have preferred not having to tell that lie, but it was better than harming my best friend and breaking up her marriage." 

Here, there is also another pitfall to avoid.  This is ruminating about whether or not you did the right thing.  "Maybe I just should have told the truth and let her deal with it; maybe I did the wrong thing by lying to her."  There is an old existentialist piece of advice that applies in such cases of choosing the least of two evils.  This is that you make your decision right by making it.  You made your decision; you weighed the pros and cons and you came to a decision.  That is all you can humanly do in a case of moral conflict, so it is not reasonable to sit and ruminate about your decision. 

Sometimes the moral principles that you have internalized are themselves self-defeating and unreasonable.  These are "moral" only in the sense that you believe that they're moral.  Thus, you may think that you have a moral duty to worry about things and you feel guilty when you don't.  For example, you may believe that you have a duty to worry about your kids.  As a result you live in a state of constant anxiety.  "If I let my guard down even for a minute, something awful might happen to them.  So it is my duty to always be on the lookout and to make the right choices so nothing bad ever happens to the kids." Under the guise of such a moral duty to worry yourself sick, you may fail to question the rationality of what you are doing to yourself and to others who must live with your chronic worry problem, including the kids.  Indeed, if it is your moral duty to worry, then it is beyond question that you MUST worry.  But there is no good reason to think you have such a moral duty in the first place--unless you think that morality exists merely to make human life miserable rather than to improve it.

Do you have a moral duty to take good care of your kids? Yes, that's reasonable. Do you have an additional moral duty to worry about taking good care of your kids?  No, that's not reasonable!  In fact, making yourself sick with worry can defeat your ability to be an adequate caregiver by needlessly stressing you out and making it harder to think rationally.

Some people, quite a number of them, hold the moral principle that says you must be perfect. "I must always do the right thing, and never fail at anything."  This type of moral charge is unrealistic and therefore unattainable.  As a result, those who have internalized a perfectionistic "moral" principle will experience intense guilt when they have not succeeded at being perfect-which is always or almost always.  So, in embracing such an over-demanding credo, you sentence yourself to a life of unremitting stress; for even when you succeed at something, there's always the impending possibility of not succeeding in the future.  As a result, successes are seldom enjoyed and are often the occasion to worry about the possibility of future failings.

But even if your moral principles are rational, you can still experience irrational guilt; and this can be true even when you truly have violated one of your principles.  Such guilt can be the self-abasing type. That is, you tell yourself that you are a bad person because you did something wrong.  "What a worthless person I am.  How could I have gone back on my word like that! I am nothing but a spineless idiot."  Here, the guilt is sustained by self-damnation. Thus you are demoralized by your perceived moral infraction and think yourself worthless.

This is an extremely destructive and self-defeating form of guilt.  For if you tell yourself that you are worthless, you have decreed once and for all that you are incapable of making constructive changes in the future.  Indeed, a being that really was totally worthless would, by definition, lack the capacity to do anything worthy.  So, in debasing yourself in this way, you can experience ongoing guilt without recognizing any possibility of acting better in the future.

If you do something that you think is wrong, it is your action that is wrong, NOT YOU.  You are distinct from your action and therefore it is a fallacy to infer YOUR unworthiness from the unworthiness of your action.  Otherwise we'd all be bad inasmuch as we all have done bad things.  So guilt that rejects the doer rather than the deed is irrational, hence unacceptable guilt.

However, guilt that rates the deed instead of the doer can still be irrational.  Thus, you might exaggerate just how bad your action really was. "What I did," you exclaim, "was so awful!  How could I have done such a horrible thing!"  But, while terms like "awful" and "horrible" may sensibly be reserved for actions such as the abduction and molestation of a child or the burying of someone alive, most of the moral violations that people call awful or horrible tend to be much less serious.  For example, committing adultery can be a serious breach of trust, yet the transgression is ordinarily not nearly as reprehensible as the latter actions. Realizing just how serious your offense is in relation to other offenses need not get you off the guilt hook but it can help to regulate the intensity of your guilt.  It could, for example, make the difference between feeling suicidal versus repentant.   

Not uncommonly, people feel guilty about violating a moral principle that, on careful inspection, they really wouldn't accept.  For example, a client of mine once told me that a woman should always obey the man.  "The man should wear the pants," she declared.  I asked her why she believed this, and she told me that men are better decision-makers than women.  I then asked her if there was anything she was better at than her husband, and she told me that she knew more about real estate and financial matters.  So I challenged her to rethink her moral principle.  I asked, "If the person best at making decisions should be the decision-maker, and you are best at real estate and financial decisions, then who should be making those decisions?"  My client was subsequently able to see the contradiction in believing a principle she had been long ago socialized to accept.  "I should be making those decisions!" she exclaimed.  Woman too can "wear the pants"!

So, is there any guilt that's constructive?  Some psychologists have claimed that guilt is always a destructive emotion, but that is a rather extreme view. Unlike the forms discussed so far, constructive guilt must not be:  based on absolutistic moral principles;  ruminating; based on irrational principles such as the duty to worry or to be perfect; supported by self-abasement; exaggerated; or based on a moral principle that, on reflection, you would reject;  

Accordingly, here are six questions you can ask yourself to see if your guilt is legitimate:

  • Have you allowed for reasonable exceptions to your moral principle? Remember, you may have been caught in a case of moral conflict and simply had to make a decision.

  • Have you avoided ruminating about whether or not you did the right thing in a situation of moral conflict, keeping yourself from going over and over your decision ad nauseam?

  • Is the principle you think you have violated really rational? For example, you may be telling yourself that you have a duty to worry or that you must always be perfect.

  • Are you sticking to rating your action rather than condemning yourself for violating the moral principle in question? Once you perceive that you have done something wrong, guilt can be rational when it moves you to learn from your misdeed and to make changes in the future. It is not rational when you tell yourself that you deserve hell and damnation and as a result make yourself miserable or depressed.

  • Are you being careful not to exaggerate just how bad your action is? Remember, you can do this by comparing it to other actions that may be much worse. In so doing, you can help to reduce your excessive guilt.

  • Did you really violate a moral principle that you accept? Remember, the principle in question may be one you were brought up to believe but is self-defeating and not even consistent with your other beliefs.

If your answer to even one of these six questions is no, then your guilt is irrational and you are pointlessly upsetting yourself.

While some occasional guilty feelings can be a spur to making constructive changes, excessive, chronic guilt can destroy the quality of your life.  Paying careful attention to the factors discussed in this blog can be an important start to overcoming your irrational guilt.

For further discussion and exercises you can do to overcome irrational guilt, read my book, The Dutiful Worry:  How to Stop Compulsive Worry Without Feeling Guilty (also available in Kindle edition).

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