Guilt: The Useless Emotion

Guilt is actually worse than useless, as it fosters bad feelings towards yourself and others.

It’s easy to think that guilt motivates you to do better in the future, but that’s not actually what happens. Guilt leads to resentment of the person you might have wronged.

Here’s how it works: if they didn’t exist you wouldn’t denigrate yourself; so, their very presence becomes a reminder of your perceived wrong-doing and a catalyst for self-reproach. This isn’t conscious resentment, it’s unconscious, but it negatively effects your relationship with them, and with yourself.

Here’s how guilt actually evolves:

You do or say something you wish you hadn’t done; or, you don’t do or say something you think you should have done or said.

You think, “I did a bad thing.”

You think, “I’m a bad person for doing that, or neglecting to do it.”

“I should be punished.”

Guilt is the self-inflicted punishment.

The real cure when we’ve done something we wish we hadn’t done, or neglected to do something we think would have been helpful, is to offer a heartfelt apology.  There’s no time limit on contrition.  As long as someone is alive you can ask for their forgiveness.

As for thinking you’re a bad person, there’s no such thing.  No one is completely good or bad.  Everyone has some good traits and some less good traits.   But it’s easy to become so self-downing that you convince yourself you’re lower than a snake’s wiggle.  The trick is to stop rating your whole self on the basis of one or two behaviors that may have been less than stellar.  As Albert Ellis used to say, “Rate your behavior but not yourself.”

Here’s a quick quiz to help you understand that concept:

Pretend I give you a beautiful wicker basket.  Even if you don’t like wicker baskets, you can appreciate the artistry.

Then, I start putting pieces of fruit in your basket.  A luscious looking peach, a mangy looking cantaloupe, a perfectly ripe pear, and a soft, brown banana.

What kind of a basket do you have?

Most people will say, “A mixed basket; there’s some good fruit and some rotten fruit.”

The answer is: You have a beautiful wicker basket.

You are the basket and all your behaviors are the fruit.  You can change things you don’t like about yourself, but your human worth is unassailable.

Punishing yourself has absolutely no upside.  Not only will you avoid the person you think you wronged (because of unconscious resentment), but you will make yourself feel rotten. Once you feel guilty and depressed you’ll be far less likely to apologize or make amends.  So guilt really is worse than useless as it prevents you from moving forward and enjoying happier relationships.

Copyright Nicole S. Urdang

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Nicole Urdang

Nicole S. Urdang, M.S., NCC, DHM is a Holistic Psychotherapist in Buffalo, NY. She holds a New York state license in mental health counseling and a doctorate in homeopathic medicine from the British Institute of Homeopathy.