Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Why It's Good to Feel Guilty

Although guilt makes us feel rotten, it's actually good for us.

A few days ago, a small group of friends were hanging out in my backyard on a sunny afternoon with white wine, talking the about guilty pleasures. All the usual suspects were discussed - overindulgence of chocolatey treats or alcohol, listening to unpopular music or watching trashy TV, liking a dorky movie, and wearing clothes that belong to someone else (or would be the topic of the show, "What not to wear"). One woman said she hides her son's toys when she feels angry at him, and then pretends to not know where the toys are when asked - although she'll miraculously find them shortly after.

As more wine was consumed, the confessions became more interesting and started to include a few sexual behaviours. Someone admitted that they liked sex outdoors best, much to the whoops and hollers of everyone there. A while later, and after a few more glasses of wine, someone dropped the biggest one of the day - she was having an affair.

Everyone became silent. Here was a woman admitting that her guilty pleasure consisted of infidelity. Someone casually asked if she was still sexually involved with her husband, as though that might be justification, and she said no. This seemed to calm a few of the listeners down. Then, after a short pause, almost unanimously everyone rushed to ask, "Don't you feel guilty?" (While one woman leaned to the person next to her and said, "thankfully, they've no kids.")

For the next while, she was grilled. Ultimately, she said that she did feel some guilt, but probably not as much as she should, and she didn't know why. I partly think it was because she wasn't emotionally involved in her affair, which I'll explain soon in an upcoming post. Perhaps also part of it was because she wasn't receiving sexual attention from her mate; other bloggers have posted at some length about this and similar topics.

Guilty pleasures are, by definition, something that we know we shouldn't do but do it anyways because it brings us pleasure. We know that eating a big slab of gooey cake contains a zillion calories and we might regret it later, but it brings us (or at least some of us) momentary pleasure.

Similarly, reasonably good sex with someone other than our married partner will potentially bring us momentary pleasure - it's thrilling, different, and novel. The drawback is that it might destroy the relationship, especially if one becomes pregnant or brings home an STD. Then there is the issue of how infidelity effectively ruins any feelings of trust in the relationship, especially if your mate has the affair with someone who is your friend or even a family member (see Fisher et al., 2009).

Why do we engage in guilty pleasures, then, since we know that guilt is a demon? It is an awful, horrible sensation that eats away at your mind, consuming you if you let it, and eventually leaves you emotionally drained. It must be because the pleasure part outweighs the guilt part.
Linked to this is the type of behaviour (i.e., guilty pleasure) one engages in that causes the guilt to arise. That is, the severity of guilty feelings is probably aligned with the ‘crime' you committed. If you ate that cake, whoops - have to be careful to exercise for the next two days. But if you cheated on your spouse, whoops - have to be sure to spend more time with them and bring home flowers? How does one make up for infidelity? Does one bother to even try, or should one just wallow in the guilt and hopefully forget it over time?

I'm not terribly interested in ‘lightweight guilt' - like that from telling a small lie, or eating too much cake. Time usually takes care of it - if you give yourself a day or two, you'll probably feel better and no long-term harm was done. What I am most interested in is the deep-rooted, nasty feelings of guilt that linger like a bad perfume. In my experience, this type of guilt is seems to usually only brought on by a transgression against someone or a group of people. I find this fascinating. Think about it - aren't your deepest guilty feelings those that involve people, or more particularly, something that you did that negatively impacted on those individuals?

Reviewing the clinical psychology literature indicates that guilt likely exist as a mechanism to help us recognize when we've done something that hurts our social standing within a group or when we threaten our social bonds. It makes us want to maintain our standing and acceptance within the group, and helps us realize that we need to engage in reparative acts (see the work of Drickamer & Vessey, 1982; Gilbert, 1997). That is, guilt is what makes us realize that we did something wrong, and that we probably have to fix it, somehow. And often, we can't be fully rid of the guilt until we undertake some action to fix our mess.

Although guilt makes us feel awful - I've yet to meet anyone who really loves to feel guilty - it has a very important role in our lives. We are a social species, and an emotion that causes us to recognize our actions as hurting others is beneficial. Gilbert (1997) reviews how guilt fosters a general interested in the wellbeing of others within our group and makes us more responsive to others' distress so that we will offer sympathy and aid. It is the feeling of guilt that causes us to examine the hardships that we cause for others, and to make us want to engage in behaviours that will fix the mess we've caused.

If I was to give a prediction on the woman who is having an affair and doesn't feel much guilt, I would say that her marriage is in trouble. Within the context of infidelity, guilt may motivate one to engage in rebuilding trust with their mate, and stop one from repeating the behaviour that puts the relationship at risk (see Fisher et al., 2008).

I argued a few posts ago that the emotion of regret is a ‘good thing,' and that it needs to be viewed as a positive emotion. I think a similar case can be made for the emotion of guilt. Like regret, it causes us to reflect on our decision-making and to avoid making poor decisions in the future. The reason we feel guilty is most likely because we did something we are not proud of, and know that we shouldn't have done it in the first place. Admitting that we make mistakes is not easy, but we can grow from these experiences.

The problem, it seems, is when we get so caught up in guilt that we don't learn from the experience. So, the next time I do something that causes me to feel guilt, I won't wallow. I'll try to view the experience and the emotion from a positive angle and chalk it up as a lesson learnt. And, when faced with my own guilty pleasures, whatever they might be, I will try to also remember what the Greek tragedy writer Euripides once said: short is the joy that guilty pleasure brings.