Maybe you know that feeling, that one that arises when you believe your behavior is inappropriate in some way and goes against a set of values or moral standards. You feel as though you’ve done something that will result in disapproval from the people around you and that haunting feeling of guilt sets in.
We often think of guilt as being a negative and unpleasant emotion. It can feed a feeling of anxiety as we fear disapproval or judgment from others. However, like most negative and unpleasant emotions, that guilt is trying to tell you something needs to change. Guilt can be reframed in a positive light. It can build prosocial behavior by motivating you to take part in your community, encouraging you to help family or neighbors, and it can inspire you to eat healthy and exercise.
Most people don’t want to be solely motivated by guilt though. Guilt doesn’t feel good! When working with guilt it can help to consider your values and what your intention is for alleviating the feeling. If you ask yourself “why should I help my neighbor?” and your answer is “because I’ll feel guilty if I don’t” then you are being motivated by guilt. However, if you ask yourself “why should I help my neighbor?” and your answer is “because it’s the compassionate thing to do” then you are demonstrating an intention to help based on your value of compassion, not guilt.
Guilt can be worked with in several ways.
- Learn from your behavior. If you did do something wrong and had a negative result, learn from what you did so you don’t repeat the same negative outcome in the future.
- Be accountable for your actions. Take responsibility by apologizing, acknowledging your mistake or behavior, and be careful to not let the behavior happen again.
- Recognize what you can and cannot change. If you can change something about the situation, change it! If you can’t change what happened, find healthy ways to move on.
- Share your experience with others. If you’ve learned something from your experience with guilt, share your knowledge with others so they might prevent the same outcome from happening.
- If you’ve done nothing wrong and can’t place why you’re feeling guilty, talk with someone about it. Guilt can be a sign that something unhealthy is going on with your thinking and talking about it can help sort out where the feeling might be coming from.
Inspired by a prompt from The Guilt that Haunts Me