Guilt: When It’s Harmful, When It’s Helpful


Like all of our feelings, internally generated guilt tells us something important about ourselves. If we listen and take action, the feeling fades away. Unfortunately, many people experience a type of guilt that diminishes their lives and never leaves.

Internally Generated Guilt

Guilt, when it is spontaneous and comes from within, is helpful. It lets us know we have done something outside of our values, or that we have hurt someone. For example, if we are teasing somebody and take it a step too far, our internal guilt-o-meter sends us a signal to pull back and make an apology.

Most people experience this guilt signal as a sick-ish feeling, often in the stomach area, but it can be a whole body sensation. Those who are sensitive to internal guilt immediately know when they have done something that needs correcting, but many of us have become desensitized to this built-in wisdom and don’t notice it.

Internally generated guilt, if not acted on, leaves us with a guilty conscience. The guilt is now a burden, something we try to suppress or ignore but usually cannot. The only thing that will relieve the burden is doing whatever possible to make things as right as possible.

Externally Generated Guilt

When guilt is chronic and comes from a belief in our faults, weaknesses, and mistakes, it becomes a wet blanket, hampering our lives. Part of the blanket is made of imagined transgressions weighing on our mind. The rest is largely the negative beliefs we hold about ourselves such as being inherently bad, stupid, unlovable, or a loser. Cultural and spiritual traditions might also be a factor.

Externally driven guilt can be debilitating and is one reason many people turn to therapists for help. The beliefs are deeply ingrained, color all our perceptions, and have an ill-effect on our physical health and relationships. They are made of our reactions to the judgments we have accepted from others. We rarely give them up easily.

A Third Type of Guilt

If we have potential that we hide, ignore, or repress we might experience a distressing sense of guilt. Existential therapists believe guilt is activated when we know, on some level, we are shortchanging our self.

The guilt is an indebtedness to one’s own self and if ignored can lead to mental health issues such as depression or psychosis. However, since the guilt is internally driven, it is most likely a message meant to help us grow, and backfires if not heeded.

Tips for Turning the Table on Guilt

  1. Feelings express our inner landscape, but they are not facts. You may feel guilty because of your beliefs but that does not mean you are guilty. Consider talking to a professional.
  2. If you have done something unethical or offensive that weighs on your mind, do what you can to correct the situation, and chalk it up to a lesson learned.
  3. Should you suspect that your guilt is a self-message telling you to stop holding yourself back, start taking very small steps toward releasing that potential. Little steps add up quickly.

Image: detail from "Guilt", an oil painting by Rallé


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