Guilt is our emotional enforcer of what is right and wrong. We all feel guilty about something we have said or done. It usually involves a mistake or error we made. We may have hurt a friend's feelings over a comment or action. Healthy guilt is a way for us to reevaluate our behaviors and apologize as well as deciding to make a behavioral change for the better.
Appropriate guilt keeps us from making the same mistake twice. If you are feeling guilty for drinking excessively and your friends and family have expressed concern about your drinking, then this is healthy guilt. Your mind is trying to tell you that you are doing something that is not congruent with your body and an analysis of the behavior as well as insight may be useful for change. Healthy guilt helps us to examine our decisions and actions and make better and more appropriate choices.
Unhealthy guilt is something we feel that is based on irrational or faulty logic. An example is when we feel guilty about setting healthy boundaries in our life or leaving an unhealthy relationship. Decisions based on unhealthy guilt can lead to poor decision making, poor problem solving and indecisiveness. Unhealthy guilt can impede our decision making and we may find ourselves making frequent decisions based on guilt. At times unhealthy guilt can be a part of feeling inadequate about a situation/self or feeling down. If your guilt does not involve correcting something that you have done, then it is probably unhealthy guilt.
The first thing we must do to manage feeling guilty is to recognize whether this is healthy guilt or unhealthy guilt. Unhealthy guilt clouds our judgment and healthy guilt assists us in making better choices. If you are feeling appropriate guilt, an apology may be the next step along with evaluating the situation and deciding how to do things differently in the future. Inappropriate guilt is not reality, just because you feel this, does not make the situation true. Accept you made an error, make amends and let it go. Harboring the guilt and negative self talk will not change the situation or improve your life. Accept responsibility, apologize and work toward moving forward.
Guilt is a normal feeling when we have done something wrong. Depression is associated with feeling guilty, however, everyone who feels guilty is not depressed. People who have depression tend to ruminate about things and find themselves with a list of items to feel guilty about, most of the time this is unhealthy guilt. The internal dialogue of someone with depressive symptoms exacerbates the guilt and depression. This is faulty thinking and furthers the depressive symptoms and negative self talk. If you suffer from depression, and you find yourself ruminating, filled with guilt and experiencing negative self talk, it may be time to seek professional support.
Disclaimer: This blog is meant for informational purposes only and is not a replacement for therapy or treatment.
Dr. Deb is a successful Psychologist who practices in New York City. She is an Anxiety Specialist who works with adolescents and adults providing both individual and couples counseling.