No, I haven’t fallen off my rocker when I say that guilt is good for you. We have come to associate guilt as being paralyzing, catastrophic, and more uncomfortable than an 8-hr flight with a hairy, unkempt foot on your armrest.
What about those all-consuming thoughts and feelings that come with guilt that eats you up inside? And what about all the “what-ifs,” “could haves” and “should-haves”? This level of guilt is absolutely all encompassing and very, very difficult to move past. So, this is where I will have to do my Resident Health Advisor spiel and tell you to seek help if you are already in this mindset.
But, if your guilt is minimal to moderate, it really can be good for you. Let’s tease out how on Earth guilt can be good for you.
What is Guilt?
Guilt has been prevalently defined as an emotion that is experienced in private (Ausubel, 1955; Benedict, 1946). It is where one’s conscience has a chance to speak loudly to one’s breach of personal standards (e.g., moral transgression) (Tangney, Miller, Flicker, & Barlow, 1996).
Example: You babysat, the baby ends up sick after being with you, and you were definitely coughing on her without thinking. You could feel pretty guilty for possibly getting the baby sick. So, next time, you take extra precautions to overwash your hands and try not to breathe the same air as the baby.
What Causes It?
Guilt stems from the person’s choice of behaviors in a given situation, rather than their core beliefs, values or personality (Lewis, 1971). Research has shown that people who have a choice of behaving differently in a situation often time ruminate about the ‘other’ choice so much that the guilt actually motivates them to seek reparative actions (e.g., prosocial behavior such as apologizing or making someone dinner.) (Tangney, Miller, Flicker, & Barlow, 1996).
Example: Giving in to buying a super pretty eyeshadow palette that isn’t cruelty-free when you are really into being cruelty-free. But, then you feel so guilty that you’ve abandoned some of your morals by giving into pretty, shiny things, so next time a non-cruelty-free company comes out with a palette, you don’t even look at it. Instead, you either return the product or go around saying sorry to all the animals you see on your walk.
How Guilt Protects Us From Doing Worse Things
Guilt and seeking reparative actions may be beneficial in promoting better decision-making and in turn, may lead to better health outcomes. Individuals inflicted with guilt were less likely to participate in negative behaviors (Tangney et al., 1996a) and engage in more internalized behaviors.
Example: You went out with some friends, partied in the club a bit too hard, and ended up calling in sick to work the next day because you were unable to open your eyes. You felt so guilty for partying too hard, on a Sunday as a 35-year-old, that next time your younger friends ask you to go out, you either decline (because you should probably act more responsible being closer to 40) or do only 1 vs 15 shots of wine.
How Guilt Makes Us Think Better
By internalizing, individuals take more time to process and evaluate information with their existing values, thus reinterpreting the situation in a more rational state of mind.
Example: People who have anger problems feeling guilt may end up engaging in more prosocial behaviors such as apologizing (Stuewig, Tangney, Heigel, & Harty, 2010) because the guilt may help them accept responsibility and have an enhanced ability to empathize with others (Tangney, 1990; 1991; 1995; Tangney, Wagner, Fletcher, & Gramzow, 1992).
Interpretation of Example: You fly off the handle when your spouse accidentally walks by and knocks over your $65 bottle of foundation. You call him some unsavory names, cry, and act like the world just ended. Then, you end up feeling guilty for being first-world problematic when kids are starving somewhere, so you apologize profusely for getting so angry. Next time you leave your bottle of precious elixir open, you make sure you don’t put it “thisclose” to the edge. (P.S. This did not actually happen in real life here, but I’m sure it happened in real life for someone else, somewhere.)
Why a Little Guilt is Good in the Long Run
Feelings of guilt lead the guilt-prone individual to engage in more prosocial behaviors by being proactive (e.g., making promises with the intent of quitting smoking permanently) with the ultimate goal of making amends.
Example: On a more serious note, you make promises to yourself and your family that you will lose weight/quit smoking/drink less/stop doing the drugs. But, every time you make these promises, you relapse within days and gain more weight, binge smoke and drink, or worse, abuse some drugs. (Children are so good at making you feel guilty even if you didn’t do anything. So, an example of an effective source of guilt here can be a child, preferably, yours.) One day, your child catches you bingeing on something and starts cry, pleading with you to stop so you can go play with Legos with them (small child) or walk them down the aisle on their wedding day (older child). You feel so guilty that you’ve hurt your child and scared them into thinking you are going to kill yourself, so you take small steps to stop abusing drugs or eating more healthily. Little by little each day, you hold your child as your motivational inspiration until you are healthy/clean and eventually a better version of yourself.
By using the emotion of guilt to create positive future outcomes, we empower ourselves to be better and do better. Whether we feel guilty because we know we did wrong or because we feel guilty by letting someone else down, we seek ways to “make it up to” someone. In using an emotion such as guilt that is commonly seen as a negative emotion, we can actually create more positive and optimistic life choices, thus bettering ourselves in the long run.
The most important aspect is being able to recognize why we feel guilty in the first place and using that emotion as a catalyst for positive change. Feeling guilty alone doesn’t make the negative situation better, but consciously choosing a positive future action then makes guilt good for you.
Tangney, J.P. (1990). Assessing individual differences in proneness to shame and guilt: development of the Self-Conscious Affect and Attribution Inventory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59, 102-111.
Tangney, J.P. (1991). Moral affect: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 598-607.
Tangney, J. (1995a). Recent empirical advances in the study of shame and guilt. American Behavioral Scientist, 38, 1132-1145.
Tangney, J. (1995b). Shame and guilt in interpersonal relationships. See Tangney & Fischer, 1995, pp. 114-139.
Tangney, J.P., Miller, R.S., Flicker, L. & Barlow, D.H. (1996a). Are shame, guilt and embarrassment distinct emotions? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 1256-1269.
Tangney, J. P., Wagner, P., Fletcher, C., & Gramzow, R. (1992). Shamed into anger? The relation of shame and guilt to anger and self-reported aggression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62(4), 669-675.
Stuewig, J., Tangney, J. P., Heigel, C., Harty, L., & Mccloskey, L. (2010). Shaming, blaming, and maiming: Functional links among the moral emotions, externalization of blame, and aggression. Journal of Research in Personality, 44(1), 91-102.