Guilt Isn’t All Bad

A little bit of guilt can help us and our community.

Posted Sep 10, 2013

Our culture and the general psychology profession has typically viewed guilt as all bad. We have been told that we should not feel guilty about much of anything and that we should just let go of guilt...all guilt! The message seems to be that guilt is toxic and that you should get rid of it at all costs.

Not so fast! Certainly guilt can be a highly destructive and damaging experience for many. For example, I have a patient in my clinical practice who is very religious and suffers from terrible and chronic feelings of extreme guilt. In fact she has cancer and feels guilty about it thinking that she must have done something terribly wrong to be punished by God by getting this disease. There is no question that her guilt is extreme, destructive, and damaging to her and to her loved ones. We have been working hard to help her feel less guilty about things. 

Yet, guilt isn’t all bad. Guilt, in appropriate and reasonable doses, helps us all to act in prosocial ways that can be constructive, healthy, and community building. Many people who experience at least a little bit of guilt are more likely to help their neighbors, care for loved ones, act honestly and with integrity, offer gracious and kind expressions to others, recycle, and so forth. A little guilt helps us to do the right thing at times. Guilt also helps us to eat better, drink less alcohol, and get regular exercise too. We often find ourselves behaving in healthy and prosocial ways to avoid feeling guilty if we don’t behave so well. A little guilt can go a long way to keep our behavior in check. Without any guilt whatsoever, we likely would have a much more challenging social environment and narcissistic world to live in.  

When it comes to guilt we have a curvilinear relationship that is operating such that a little bit of guilt can help us and our community to be better behaved while a lot of guilt can harm us and others resulting in great harm. The challenge is to embrace a small dose of healthy guilt without letting it become a large and unhealthy dose that causes so many troubles for us and others.  It is a lot like so much in life. A little bit is good but a lot is not! This is not so easy to do for sure but getting rid of guilt entirely may have some pretty bad unintended consequences.

When it comes to guilt, don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Guilt is dose specific. A little may be good while a lot is bad. Sure guilt can be extremely damaging but it also can help us all behave better and get along with each other too.  

So, what do you think?

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Copyright 2013 Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP

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