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How to Tell What Your Guilt Means, and Turn It Around

Using guilt to your advantage.

Key points

  • Positive, healthy guilt can be hard to distinguish from unhealthy internalized guilt.
  • Healing childhood guilt begins by preempting fear-based reactions and noticing them when they occur.
  • We can undo internalized childhood guilt and break out of habitual patterns by taking action with new behaviors.
  • We can use guilt to our advantage and jump start positive change.
Source: Metamorworks/Istockphoto

Guilt evolved for the development of conscience—to remind us of our values and keep us civilized (de Hooge, Breugelmans & Zeelenberg, 2008). In this way, guilt at times can be our friend and guide, reining us in and prompting us to take the high road.

“Do you feel guilty about your drinking?”

This question is one of only four in the CAGE inventory, a rapid screening test used by health providers to predict whether someone might have an alcohol problem (CAGE Questionnaire — Alcoholism Screening & Assessment Tool). It's curious that a question about guilt was chosen to be one of the four used in this brief screening tool. How can someone’s subjective feeling of guilt about their drinking be a reliable indicator of an alcohol use problem? What does this tell us about the function of guilt itself?

Guilt as a barometer of inner truth

Guilt can function as a barometer of inner truth—a tripwire set in motion in the face of self-deception when violating one’s own values or standards—to help us be true to ourselves and maintain self-respect. Like pain or any symptom, it forces us to notice that something is wrong. (For more, see "Is Guilt Good or Bad: Shame, Guilt, and the Effects of Trauma.")

Jenny, 9, was a precocious, sensitive, outspoken child who cared about other people’s feelings. She was troubled by a palpable awareness that some people were less fortunate than her and her family. One day, Jenny confided in her dad that she was feeling guilty ever since she and her best friend decided to tell the truth to an annoying, clingy classmate. Her friend told Jenny that they should let this girl know that the two of them wanted to be alone and didn’t really want to be friends with her. Jenny’s dad tried to help his daughter by informing her that it would be wrong to exclude the other girl and that is why they should not do that. But the dad, who struggled with guilt himself, was concerned about his daughter’s guilt and focused on reassuring her that she didn’t need to feel guilty.

While the dad correctly realized that harboring guilt is not helpful, he misdiagnosed what was happening with Jenny and what she needed. Here, guilt was her conscience serving a positive function. Her dad didn’t need to tell her what to do because she already knew and that is why she felt bad. He tried to remedy the situation for her but missed an opportunity to “see” and understand his daughter, affirm her own positive values, and strengthen her ability to make good decisions.

In an improved dialogue, the dad would teach Jenny that guilt is sometimes a signal from within to remind us that we are straying from our own values. In this instance, it was a gift from inside herself to remind her of her values—that she cares about how she treats other people and that it is important to her to be a kind and generous person.

Guilt like Jenny’s, if we know how to correctly interpret it, can prompt us to change our path for the better, jump starting new positive actions or making amends. But guilt, like other states, can operate in the service of growth or as a defense that holds us back.

Source: Pkpix/Istockphoto

Guilt internalized from childhood manipulation

Adaptive guilt in the service of being true to oneself must be differentiated from the guilt that was learned and internalized from childhood emotional manipulation by a parent or caregiver. Internalized guilt develops when a parent unconsciously uses the child to manage unresolved loss, perceived rejection, and other difficult feelings—holding the child responsible for their state of mind and, through guilt-tripping, use their own suffering as leverage in unconscious emotional blackmail. (For more, see "The Psychology of the Guilt-Tripper.")

When this happens, children develop survival strategies designed to appease and accommodate to avoid the threat of shame and emotional abandonment. They learn instinctively that separation, having their own mind, and existing in their own right is “disloyal” and leads to danger, breaking the attachment bond they need for psychological survival. These internalized guilt reactions overgeneralize and operate similarly by proxy later on in situations that do not pose a threat, such as feeling guilty for saying “no” out of fear of disappointing someone.

The difference between childhood guilt and healthy guilt

It can be a challenge to know whether an instinct or “gut” feeling is actually inner wisdom that we should follow, or a displaced reaction from the past we should flag and refrain from acting upon.
People often confuse the two and are led astray, mistaking gut reactions for truth, or overreacting to warning signals or “notifications” that are a call to positive action or remediation.

Healthy guilt, a signal coming from the self has a different feel, character, and impact than internalized childhood guilt. Healthy guilt can lead to the resolution of inner conflict by reminding us of who we want to be and facilitating choices that are in the service of self-respect and psychological integration.

In contrast, unhealthy guilt, driven by anxiety, and imposed by others, triggers insidious inner conflict and self-doubt and keeps people stuck in the past. These states are conspicuous for their repetitive script, rigidity, and failure to lead to positive resolution. Instead of guilt being "self"- generated and self-directed, here people are re-experiencing a past state of mind when they felt controlled and bound to others, often unaware that they are caught in the past.

Insight alone does not lead to change and learning. To break out of habitual patterns, taking a new action—doing something different and the harder thing—is required for success. This creates new neural pathways and updated feedback, allowing learning to take place on a neurobiological and psychological level. In this case, taking an action on one’s own behalf “informs” us that having one’s own mind does not lead to the psychological danger it once did.

Release yourself from being controlled by childhood guilt and fear

  1. Practice noticing fear-based reactions and their distinct features. These states, brought on by the idea of disappointing someone, can take the form of anticipatory dread/anxiety, incessant rumination, doubting, and guilt.
  2. Identify and flag these states, labeling them as emotional “flashbacks” that signal a false alarm that’s no longer valid.
  3. Try to observe this state and co-exist with it (rather than try to get rid of it).
  4. Defy your default instinct to appease someone, starting small with an “easy” situation. For example, when tempted to accommodate someone to avoid disapproval, rather than doing what’s right for you, speak up and take the risk of disappointing them. Test out what happens and allow a “software update” to occur.

We can sort out healthy guilt from unhealthy internalized guilt by learning to recognize the difference in how they each feel, their triggers, and their impact on us. Once we can tell them apart and know what measures to take in both scenarios we can facilitate positive momentum, psychological growth, and recovery in ourselves and others.


CAGE Questionnaire (Alcoholism Screening & Assessment Tool). (n.d.). Retrieved December 26, 2021, from