Is Guilt Ever Good?

When it's useful, when it's not, and how to truly let it go

As a working mom, I've managed my share of guilt and then some. Whether it was feeling guilty when I missed a field trip because of an important meeting or when I missed a work event because of a pediatrician's appointment, I'm well acquainted with feeling as though something I did wasn't quite right. But I'm not alone in feeling this way: Guilt is a universal emotion we all struggle with from time to time.  

What is guilt?
Guilt is an emotional response we feel when something we do or think runs counter to the way we think things should be. For example, a mom who feels guilty when she leaves her child with a babysitter might be operating under the assumption that a "good" mom is always with her kids and meets their every need. Someone who feels guilty after showing up late to a meeting might believe that she should always respect others' time and act professionally.

Is guilt bad?
When it comes to emotional health, there's no such thing as a good or bad feeling. Emotions like guilt live in the most primitive part of our brain – the one that's been around the longest and have evolved to help us make choices to stay safe in the world. The problem is that this emotional operating system is not entirely appropriate for functioning in the world today.

When it comes to evaluating guilt in the modern world, it's the underlying beliefs that matter. If a feeling of guilt stems from a belief that's realistic and helps you move toward your goals in life, it can be incredibly helpful.

Let's say you're having a flirtatious relationship with a colleague that feels like it's pushing the limits of what you find acceptable. In that case, guilt can be helpful. It can be a sign that your behavior is not working for you and can help you move forward.

The problem is that most of us live with many layers of different beliefs, some of which are contradictory or not rational. On some level, you may believe that you are human and allowed to make mistakes. But on another level, you may also feel that you should be perfect and never disappoint anybody. That, of course, is an impossible standard. When guilt is fueled by irrational beliefs, it only makes you even harder on yourself than you already are. And that's not helpful to anyone.

How can I figure out if my guilt is hurting or helping me?
Like other difficult emotions, such as anger or envy, guilt is uncomfortable to feel and address. And there's no blanket strategy go make the difficulty go away. It takes curiosity and commitment to examine the beliefs that fuel your guilt and decide if they truly make sense to you.

If that sexual tension with your colleague is bothering you because you are in a committed and monogamous relationship, or if your value system says personal relationships don't belong in the office, your guilt may be helping you make a choice that will be good for you.

On the other hand, if the guilt you feel is based on some unsustainable belief that you should be perfect all the time, then it's probably eating you up without helping you decide how it's best for you to handle a given situation. 

How can I stop feeling guilty?
Research shows that addressing an emotion directly is much more effective than just ignoring it. Actually reflecting on what you are feeling will be much more helpful than sticking a note to your mirror that reads, "Let go of guilt today!"

So examine the ideas that underlie your guilt and consider whether they make sense to you. For example, ask yourself: "Would this idea of how I should be in the world make sense to someone who cares about me? Do I expect other people to live up to this same standard, or am I only applying it to me?"

When you start to notice how your thoughts influence the way you interact with the world, you can begin to see what parts of your belief system are worth changing. There's something very earnest and honorable about wanting to keep everyone happy all the time, but it's not a reasonable expectation for yourself or others. Try to be gentle with yourself.

When you can think of guilt as simply information about how you see the world and your role in it, it can be a lot less scary than feeling the emotion without having that understanding.

How do I know if my guilt is part of a bigger mental health issue?
Extreme guilt can be associated with mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression. One telltale sign that the emotions you are feeling may be a symptom of a more serious disorder is whether an emotion – guilt or something else – prevents you from enjoying your life and meeting your responsibilities. If every experience you have is filtered through the lens of constant guilt, that's a sign you would benefit from professional help.

A therapist can help determine whether your feelings are related to an underlying mood or anxiety disorder. Many therapy techniques – including cognitive behavioral therapy, interpersonal therapy, and psychodynamic psychotherapy – are effective for treating these issues. And once your mental health is back on track, your guilt will become less intense.

You'll probably still struggle with feelings of guilt from time to time, but that's ok because we all do. It's impossible to eliminate guilt entirely, and when it helps you make good choices, you wouldn't want to! But learning to evaluate and challenge unhelpful forms of guilt frees you up to live a happier, more fulfilling life.