Guilt is good. Yes! Guilt actually encourages people to have more empathy for others, to take corrective action, and to improve themselves. Self-forgiveness following guilt is self-essential to esteem, which is key to enjoying life and relationships. Yet, for many, self-acceptance remains elusive because of unhealthy guilt.
Guilt may be an unrelenting source of pain. You might believe that you should feel guilty and condemn yourself not once, but repeatedly. Guilt also may simmer in your unconscious. Either way, this kind of guilt is insidious and self-destructive and can sabotage your goals.
Guilt causes anger and resentment, not only at yourself, but toward others in order to justify your actions. Anger, resentment, and guilt sap your energy, cause depression and illness, and prevent success, pleasure, and fulfilling relationships. They keep you stuck in the past and prevent you from moving forward.
You may feel guilty not only for your actions, but also for your thoughts — for wishing someone pain, misfortune, or even death; for feelings such as anger, lust, or greed; for lack of feelings, such as unreciprocal love or friendship, or for not grieving the loss of someone close. Although irrational, you might feel guilty for someone else’s thoughts, attributes, feelings, and actions. It’s not unusual for people to feel guilty for leaving their faith or not meeting their parents’ expectations.
People often judge themselves based upon the blame or false accusations emanating from others, which they believe to be true. For example, a woman projects her selfishness onto her husband. He believes it, not realizing it is she who is selfish (an attribute). She might blame her insecurity (feeling) on him, claiming he’s flirting, uncaring, or indifferent. A man might blame his anger (feeling) or mistake (action) on his partner, and she believes him and feels guilty.
Because of their low self-esteem, it’s common for codependents to take the blame for others’ behavior. A spouse might accept her husband’s blame and feel guilty for his drinking or addiction. Victims of abuse or sexual assault frequently feel guilt and shame, despite the fact that they were victims and it’s the perpetrator who is culpable. When it comes to divorce, those initiating it often feel guilty, even though responsibility for their marital problem is shared or was primarily due to their partner.
Guilt should be distinguished from shame. Shame causes you to feel inferior, inadequate, or bad about who you are versus what you did. When irrational and not absolved, guilt can lead to shame. Shame isn’t constructive. Instead of enhancing empathy and self-improvement, it has the opposite effect. It leads to greater self-preoccupation and undermines both the self and relationships.
If you already have low self-esteem or have issues around shame (most people do), it may be difficult to concentrate on what it is you feel guilty about. However, this is necessary in order to get past it. Rationalizing or brushing it under the rug to avoid self-examination may help temporarily, but will not achieve self-forgiveness. Alternatively, beating yourself up prolongs guilt and shame and damages your self-esteem; accepting responsibility and taking remedial action improves it. Here are suggested steps you can take. I refer to actions, but they apply equally to thoughts or feelings you feel guilty about: