At some point in each of our lives we have all felt guilty about something. Guilt feelings can range from small things like breaking our diet to larger things like deliberately hurting someone or committing an illegal act.  Simply put, guilt feelings occur when you or someone in your life tells you that you have done something wrong. It is important, however, that you can distinguish between healthy/true guilt and unhealthy/false guilt. 

Healthy/True Guilt: Healthy or true guilt is constructive and occurs when a person has actually done something wrong or is thinking of doing something he or she rationally believes is unfair or morally wrong - such as deliberately harming someone. This is an important feeling, which results from having developed a conscience. Healthy guilt results in taking responsibility for our choices and being accountable for our actions. It is at that point that we feel remorse, seek forgiveness and do whatever we have to do to remedy the situation and change our behavior.

Unhealthy/False Guilt: In contrast, there is a form of guilt that is entirely different. It does not allow for mistakes and is unhealthy and destructive. This unhealthy guilt results from someone telling you (or you telling yourself) that you have done something wrong when you have not actually done something wrong. This misplaced guilt can be used to manipulate friends, relatives, children, spouses and in-laws. It can also be applied to employees, friends, and children to correct or discipline them. Basically, this unhealthy guilt is used to control others. There are also times when we personally use guilt on ourselves to motivate us to clean up our act, e.g., quitting smoking, losing weight, or making other desired changes. While the motivation of guilt gives us some satisfying short-term results, little real change occurs. As a result, we feel even more guilty.

There are also times when people make statements that lead us to believe that we are responsible for their feelings. So when they become angry, hurt, or disappointed, we take it as our fault and feel unhealthy guilt. When you accept this blame, it is because you want to believe or are encouraged by another to believe, that you can control another person’s feelings.

It is important to understand the difference between true and false guilt so we can know when guilt is appropriate, when it is not, and how to resolve it. It is only at that point that we will be able to successfully overcome and release the guilt feelings we experience. Healthy guilt is an important feeling and leads to positive action, but unhealthy guilt is a waste of energy. Next time you begin to feel guilt, you may want to ask yourself, “Is this true or false guilt?”  If it is true guilt, it provides you an opportunity to change.  If it is false guilt, you are challenged to respond to it in a healthy manner and confront where that feeling comes from and not let it control your life and actions.

Author: Craig De Witt, PsyD