Saturday, May 19, 2012

Got Guilt? The Difference Between Healthy and Unhealthy Guilt.

     We all have had our share of feeling guilty about something we did, we said, or a decision we made. Guilt is a complicated emotion that has two sides: healthy and unhealthy. In general, guilt is an emotional warning sign that most of us develop early on in normal childhood development. Its purpose is to make us aware of when we have done something wrong. When we act on our feelings of guilt in a healthy and positive way, we get to examine our behavior and grow emotionally by learning from our mistakes and doing the best we can to not repeat the same behavior in the future. In healthy guilt, we give ourselves an emotional pass by "letting go" of our guilty feelings and by reminding ourselves that we are all human beings and all of us make mistakes every once in a while.
     Healthy guilt helps us to achieve our goals. We feel guilty when we are not attending to our responsibilities or when we "put off" finishing that important work or home project we intended to already have completed. Healthy guilt also helps us to maintain important relationships. We feel guilty when we hurt our friends or loved ones so we try our best to be mindful of the consequences of our actions and behaviors. On a larger scale, guilt helps us to function as a civilized society, it's our moral and ethical compass. Without it our society would most likely be chaotic and dangerous. Simply put, guilt keeps our least desirable
impluses "in check".
     Unhealthy guilt is experienced as a nagging and exaggerated sense of guilt that is out of proportion to the situation we feel guilty about in the first place. When we experience unhealthy guilt we end up feeling pretty bad about ourselves and it contributes to depression and low self-esteem. Worst of all, it inhibits us from learning from our mistakes and chips away at our self confidence. Unhealthy guilt stems from an unexpressed and unresolved emotion and /or conflict. It blocks us from maturing emotionally because it prevents us from learning from our mistakes and from moving forward. For example, when unhealthy guilt is directed towards ourselves we become gluttons for self punishment and are left to stew in our negative thoughts and emotions making it impossible to "let go" of our bad feelings and move forward.  
     When a situation arises that makes us feel guilty it is important to first figure out if our guilty feelings are healthy or unhealthy. For example, if you feel guilty after telling a white lie in order to back out of a previously arranged plan, feeling guilty is healthy. Your guilt is specific and has a rational purpose. Wanting to be a good friend, feeling bad about possibly disappointing the person you canceled plans with, and feeling bad about lying in the first place are all reasonable reasons to feel guilt. The good news is, healthy guilt is not too difficult to remedy. For instance, it's easy enough the apologize to the person you offended by telling that white lie in the first place and then telling the truth, the real reason for having to cancel. You can learn from this experience by making the decision to not tell white lies in the future and to learn that honesty is usually your best choice. Best of all, you will not feel guilty! 
      The result of unhealthy guilt, on the other hand, is to make us feel badly about our decisions and behaviors for no real legitimate reason. For instance, in the example above if the person decided to tell the truth about having to cancel plans with his or her friend and felt tremendous guilt regarding this, then his or her guilt does not serve any real purpose since an actual mistake or harmful action did not take place. Instead their unhealthy guilt just results in the person feeling bad about him or herself. Unhealthy guilt is much more complicated to remedy and requires the person to examine and understand why a simple behavior, that most people would not feel guilty about, produces such guilt for him or her.  
     No one is perfect and no one leads a guilt free life. Striving for perfection- that is never making a mistake- is a recipe for failure since it is unachievable. It is important to focus on the guilt that causes our friends and loved one's harm. Be skeptical the next time you feel guilty-is it trying to teach you something rational and helpful about your behavior, or is it just an emotional, irrational response to a situation? Remember, we all make mistakes and there is value in our mistakes. When we make a mistake, acknowledge our mistake, and feel a healthy dose of guilt regarding our mistake, we achieve the capacity to learn, to grow, and to move forward.
      What are your thoughts about guilt? Do you often find yourself feeling guilty? Do you feel guilty because of emotional and irrational reasons?  I would love to hear from you regarding this topic! Please comment below or email me at drpauladurlofsky@gmail.com.

This article is written by Paula Durlofsky, Ph.D.  I am a practicing psychologist in Bryn Mawr, PA. Please visit my web site at www.drpauladurlofsky.com. to learn more about me and my practice.



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