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There Are Good Reasons For Feeling Guilty AND Bad

Confessing to a priest


There Are Good Reasons For Feeling Guilty AND Bad

How feeling guilty can be either good or bad for you.

Guilt is a common feeling of emotional distress that signals us when our actions or inactions have caused or might cause harm to another person—physical, emotional, or otherwise. Because guilt typically occurs in “micro-bursts” of brief signals, we often underestimate the rather significant role it plays in our daily lives. Therefore, you might be surprised to learn the following facts about guilt:

  1. Guilt protects our relationships. Guilt occurs primarily in interpersonal contexts and is considered a “pro-social” emotion because it helps you maintain good relations with others. In essence, guilt is like a signal that keeps going off in your head until you take the appropriate action (“It’s Mother’s Day; I must remember to call mom!”). Each signal might be brief but taken together they can add up such that…
  2. We experience 5 hours a week of guilty feelings. One study found that if you add up all the moments you spend feeling mildly or moderately guilty, it adds up to a pretty significant chunk of time. This is especially important because while guilt can be useful in small doses…
  3. Unresolved guilt is like having a snooze alarm in your head that won’t shut off. If you had a snooze alarm that never shut off it would be hard to concentrate, as your attention would be constantly hogged by bursts of guilty feelings. Indeed, it is not uncommon for guilt to persist over lengthy periods of time. Having unresolved guilt can have an extremely detrimental effect because…
  4. Guilty feelings make it difficult to think straight. When guilty feelings compete for your attention with the demands of work, school, and life in general, guilt usually wins. Studies have found that concentration, productivity, creativity, and efficiency are all significantly lower when you’re feeling actively guilty. It’s not only that guilt makes it hard to function, but…
  5. Guilt makes us reluctant to enjoy life. Even mild guilt can make you hesitant to embrace the joys of life. In one study, college students were made to feel guilty and then given a choice of free items they could get for their participation. Students who were not made to feel guilty chose movie DVDs and music downloads while guilty students chose school supplies. Again, these students only felt mild guilt. Guilty feelings might make you choose to skip a party, not celebrate your birthday, or mope around during your vacation without being able to enjoy it. But for some people, guilt can do even worse damage:
  6. Guilt can make you self-punish. The Dobby Effect—a phenomenon named after the head-banging elf in the Harry Potter books—refers to a psychological tendency for people to employ self-punishment to ward off feelings of guilt. In one study, students who were made to feel guilty by depriving another student of lottery tickets (worth only a few dollars) were actually willing to give themselves electric shocks to signal their remorse. However, it’s not always ourselves we punish when we feel guilty…
  7. Guilt can make you avoid the person you’ve wronged. Even though you might have already caused someone harm, you might unwittingly make matters worse by distancing yourself from that person because of the guilt you feel around them. This tendency to avoid reminders of guilt can even extend to more distantly related people and to locations and things (“That’s the restaurant where I had that awful breakup talk with my ex, so I never go there anymore”). This tendency to avoid the people who make you feel guilty also applies when you’re the subject of…
  8. Guilt trips make you feel guilty but also resentful. People who give guilt trips to others do so in order to control or manipulate their behavior, but they rarely consider the amount of resentment the guilt trip provokes in the other person. So while saying, “You never call me!” might get a person to call you in that moment, it will also make them less likely to want to call you in the future. This is why guilt trips are more harmful to relationships than most guilt-trippers realize. However, some people don’t need a guilt trip…
  9. Guilt-prone people assume they’ve harmed others when they haven’t. When your trigger for feeling guilty feelings is set too low, your guilt alarm goes off when it shouldn’t. As a result, you end up feeling guilty about impacting others adversely, when you actually haven’t. This is no minor issue; by over-interpreting people’s disapproval when it’s not there, you’re exposing yourself to constant and unnecessary stress and impacting your own quality of life. Indeed, guilt is a “burden” in more ways than we imagine…
  10. Guilty feelings make you feel literally heavier and more belabored. Studies found that feeling guilty makes people assess their weight as being significantly heavier than it actually is, and physical activities as requiring significantly more effort, than non-guilty people do.

What can you do to address unresolved guilt? One of the best ways to resolve guilty feelings is to offer effective apologies. It sounds simple, but if you think you know how to apologize effectively, you are likely wrong. See “Do Your Apologies Contain These Key Ingredients?”; you probably miss at least 2 of them when you apologize. And for science-based tips for managing guilt, check out Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts(link is external) (Plume, 2014).

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[Guy Winch]


Guy Winch, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist, keynote speaker, and author whose books have already been translated into thirteen languages. His most recent book is Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013). The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships and Enhance Self-Esteem (Walker & Company) was published in January 2011. Dr. Winch received his doctorate in clinical psychology from New York University in 1991 and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in family and couples therapy at NYU Medical Center. He has been working with individuals, couples and families in his private practice in Manhattan, since 1992. He is a member of the American Psychological Association. In addition to the Blog on this site, Dr. Winch also writes the popular Squeaky Wheel Blog on Psychology, and blogs for Huffington Post.

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