The Purpose of Guilt
& How It Can Be Helpful


Even just saying the word “guilt” feels unpleasant. And the feeling of guilt, well, that feels even worse.

When you step back and think for a moment, we are all equipped with a wide range of emotions, so there must be a reason for this, right?

And if there is a reason for having all of these emotions, what could it possibly be?

In a study published in Psychological Science, Amodio & Harmon-Jones (2007) conducted an ingenious experiment to test the theory that guilt is supposed to feel bad (as a form of punishment).

The researchers further hypothesized that feeling bad could motivate us to take action to repair the damage.

Without getting too deep into the study's details, the researchers were able to create a sense of guilt in “liberally-minded” study participants by convincing them they had responded to an experimental activity in a discriminatory manner (i.e., the study participants were deceived and told that they had responded to a test item in a way that showed racial prejudice).

Feelings of guilt were measured via electrical activity (an Electroencephalogram or “EEG” for short). And as expected, study participants demonstrated notable levels of guilt.

EEG

With the first goal accomplished (the people in the study were feeling guilty!), the researchers created a task that could help the study participants reduce their feelings of guilt by repairing the perceived damage they had caused earlier in the study.

So, in the second part of the experiment, people were asked to choose a magazine article they would find interesting. And one of the options was to read an article about reducing racial prejudice.

Results showed that study participants were much more likely to choose the article about reducing racial prejudice.

This finding was measured by an EEG, which showed a shift in brain activity (indicating that people were motivated to make amends for their earlier behaviour).


Take-Home Message

Although this is only one experiment, it provides compelling evidence for the purpose of guilt (i.e., to feel bad so your are motivated to make amends to repair wrongdoing).

Simply speaking, this theory makes a lot of sense.

We all have numerous emotions that serve as a signal. Our job is to decode that signal, understand the meaning and respond accordingly.

4 Step Plan to Help Deal with Feelings of Guilt

So, now that you know the purpose of guilt, it's essential to have a plan to tackle it. Here's a quick four step-plan for dealing with feelings of guilt.


Evaluate the Feeling

Just because you feel guilty, it doesn't necessarily mean you should feel this way.

Some people experience what is known as "guilt-proneness," which means that people can:

  • Feel bad even when it doesn't negatively impact others
  • Feel bad about thinking about doing something wrong
  • Have generalized guilty feelings without doing anything wrong

If you are wondering if feeling guilty makes sense in a particular situation, I would suggest putting it on trial, just like a lawyer would.

And essentially you want to ask yourself, “What’s fair in this situation?”

If you could remove yourself from the situation momentarily and insert someone else, what would be a fair standard of “guilt” or accountability to hold this person to?

For example, let's assume that you've had a particularly stressful day, and you ask one of your children to unload the dishwasher. Your child doesn't seem interested in doing it and avoids the task.

You respond by saying somewhat harshly, “Why don’t you ever listen? Do I have to do everything myself?"

Shortly after that, you reflect on what just happened and think that you are a terrible parent who is likely laying the groundwork for emotionally scarring your child for life.

Now, let’s pretend this scenario happened with someone else. Perhaps, a colleague at work who you don’t even know particularly well.

Do you think that person should feel just as guilty?

Do they get a pass for having a stressful day?

Do you believe that there should be a little guilt and a lesson to be learned here about your delivery?

Or do you hold them to the same standard you hold yourself?


If Guilt isn’t Appropriate, Let it Go

After you look at the facts, you want to make a decision. Is it mostly true that I should feel guilty about this thought or situation, or is it mostly false?

If the answer is "no," your job is to let go of the guilt and carry on with your day.

No doubt, life has other challenges in store, and there will likely be a situation or two in the future where feeling guilty will be warranted.

Your guilt was a false signal in this case, and it should be ignored and let go.

Consider this example:

Imagine hopping into your car, starting it up, putting on your seat belt and driving a block or two, only to have the seat belt warning go off. It seems odd because your seat belt is plugged in. And a short distance later, the seat belt warning goes again, but this time it's more persistent and annoying. Hmm, this is starting to look like it’s going to be a long, painful ride.

The seat belt warning beep is a false signal because your seat belt is plugged in. There's nothing to be gained or changed by hearing the beep; it's just annoying.

And I'm sure you wouldn't feel guilty about it. If anything, you're probably annoyed because the seat belt is plugged in, and there is no purpose for the warning beep.

But that is precisely what happens when someone continues to feel guilty even though there is no purpose for doing so.


If Guilt is Appropriate, Take Action

So, let's assume you look at the facts and guilt seems appropriate. As we learned in the study above, the best way to address this feeling is to take action to lessen the discomfort.

Depending on the situation, this could occur in countless ways, ranging from a simple apology to doing something corrective or extra-special for the person you have hurt.

For example, let’s look at a situation that warrants a simple apology:

You've had a poor nights' sleep and have a busy, stressful day ahead of you. You aren't very chatty in the morning, and your answers are fairly short and snappy. By the time you leave the house, you realize you were fairly cold and unengaged with your partner.

Here would be a good example where a simple apology could be warranted, especially if this type of behaviour is relatively atypical.

On occasion, you may encounter a situation where you are unable to make amends. This usually occurs when someone has been hurt more strongly, and they don't want you to make amends.

In these situations, it is essential to respect the other person's wishes. You might be able to make amends at a later date if they are open to it.

Learn the Lesson from Your Mistake and Move on

Attempting to make amends whenever possible can be enough to appease feelings of guilt, but there’s an important piece missing if you stop there.

If a lesson isn't learned from the situation, there's a higher chance you will make the same mistake again.

For example, let's assume that you've been involved in a car accident and were admittedly at fault.

You slipped on ice, but when you think about it, you have a longstanding habit of driving well over the speed limit and don't alter your driving speed based on the elements (e.g., don’t slow down when it’s icy, snowy, foggy, dark, etc.).

The learning here could be to take the message to slow down in general and drive even more conservatively when the elements are difficult.

This approach helps to reduce your chance of being involved in future accidents and creates growth. And this is a far better approach than merely feeling continuously guilty about being involved in an accident.

When you can learn from the mistake and prevent it from happening again, growth happens.

So, do your best to learn from these situations, let it go and carry on. Continuing to carry the guilt after you have learned the lesson doesn’t provide you further benefit.

Unfortunately, it just puts you at risk for developing a problem with mood, as studies continue to show a strong connection between persistent feelings of guilt and depression.

So, I encourage you to exercise some forgiveness in these situations and carry on... without carrying the guilt.

How do you deal with feelings of guilt?

Do you tend to feel guilty even when you shouldn't?

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