Guilt: Useless or Useful?
By Gabriella Kortsch, Ph.D.
Your feelings of guilt are threatening to drown you. "How could I" - you ask yourself - "have ever done such a thing?"
- You were unfaithful
- You lied to your best friend
- You told your mother (because you wanted to have lunch with the cute new lawyer you met at the gym) that you couldn’t take her to the dentist until next week, so she drove herself, had an accident, and now she’s in bed with a broken leg
- You arrived late for your kid’s graduation ceremony.
- You cheated on an exam.
- You stole some money from your dad’s wallet
- You screamed at your brother for walking in on you while you were changing
- You embezzled your firm’s money
- You refused to speak to your father for two weeks because of his hard-ass behavior
- You convinced your sister to lend you her car – against her better judgement – and now you crashed it
- You fell off the wagon and had a drink again
- You gossiped about someone, without even knowing whether the gossip was true, and now a lot of people are talking about it, and have judged that person based on your gossip
- You forgot your wedding anniversary
And now you feel guilty. So, so guilty.
You Are Meant to Feel Guilty
And of course, you believe that this feeling of guilt is meant to be. That by feeling so awful about what you did, you are atoning. It’s kind of what you were taught … maybe your parents, maybe church, maybe just society in general. This is the price you pay for having done something you should not have done.
And maybe, if you grovel enough, or if you are contrite enough, somehow, someone will forgive you. But generally, even when you are forgiven, sometimes precisely because you’ve been forgiven, you continue to feel guilty. After all, you seem to believe, by continuing to show your guilt, you continue to show the world that you know that what you did was wrong. It’s atonement. If you discard the guilt too quickly, you believe, others may think you are not truly sorry.
But what if you are feeling guilty about something that happened a long time ago, and the person is dead? Who will forgive you then? Does that mean you need to feel guilty about that event for the rest of your life? Or what about if you are truly contrite but the other person refuses to forgive you? What now?.
Does Your Guilt Have a Purpose?.
So let’s examine it. Is guilt useful? I would say it is, although only long enough for you to recognize that whatever it was you did was wrong, that it should not be repeated, and that therefore you take the conscious decision to attempt to make amends, or apologize, or both, and then decide – very consciously and very deliberately - not to ever do that particular thing again. Period. The guilt had one main purpose: to teach you the lesson not to repeat that particular action ever again. No more, no less.
Beyond that, in my opinion, as long as you have taken the lesson on board - guilt is utterly and absolutely useless.
Guilt Can Be Self-Serving.
If you remain guilty beyond the above described circumstances, you are, in fact, self-serving. You serve the part of yourself that needs to feel bad in order to feel better. As long as you remain guilty about something, you can say to yourself that you are making amends by feeling awful about what you did. But does this serve the other party? The person against whom you committed this act? Of what good is it for them that you feel guilty? What if they have died? They can’t benefit from your guilt. Or perhaps they no longer speak to you. Again, they can’t benefit from what they don’t know is happening. Or perhaps they do know about your guilt, and have said you can move on, that it is no longer an issue, but you insist on feeling guilty. Does it do them any good? There might be one instance where the other may benefit from your guilt, and that is a person who continues to bear you a grudge, and relishes seeing you throw figurative ashes on your head. But such a person needs to look at themselves for a whole other set of reasons, and ask how they are benefiting by having such an attitude, and that topic is not within the scope of this article.
So, back to the question: is there anything useful about guilt, beyond the recognition that you have done something wrong, that you need to make amends, and that you need to learn a lesson from this moment of your life and decide not to do such a thing again?.
The Benefits of Guilt.
Here’s what would be of benefit, not only to the injured party, if you still have contact with them, but also to yourself, and most particularly, to all those with whom you come in contact from now on. If, on recognizing that what you did is not something you ever want to repeat again, and hence have learned an important lesson that will serve you well for the rest of your life, you will have changed a part of your inner psychological, emotional, and spiritual make-up. You will have become, to some degree, a different person, with a higher set of values, a set of values that takes you to another level. As you continue in such a line, your life can – should you so desire – continue to grow and expand in such a way that you are in a continual quest for self-improvement.
So in that sense guilt can be highly useful and positive. But only because it leads you in that direction of growth, and not because you remain mired within the actual feeling of guilt.
About Gabrielle Kortsch, Ph.D.
Dr. Kortsch holds a doctorate in psychology and dedicates herself to integral coaching, clinical hypnotherapy, relationship coaching, and energy techniques. She is an author and professional speaker and broadcasts a live weekly radio show in English that is available on the Internet or for listening on her website, and has appeared in numerous television programs in English and Spanish. She can help you move towards greater personal and relationship success with her integral approach to life and offers training and workshops in the field of self-development and choosing responsibility for the self.