June 23rd, 2024

Well + Being

Feeling good about feeling bad, or how guilt can make you better

Bob Brody

By Bob Brody The Washington Post

Published May 24, 2024

Feeling good about feeling bad, or how guilt can make you better


I've long since rendered the verdict on myself: I'm guilty. Yes, guilty as charged, guilty in the first degree, guilty on all counts. All my life I've felt every inch the guilty party. I've even managed to feel guilty about feeling guilty.

It's amply documented that guilt, especially if excessive and left to persist unchecked, can produce problems ranging from the physical, such as headaches, indigestion and muscle tension, to the mental, chiefly stress, anxiety and depression.

But research also increasingly shows that guilt is a complex, multifaceted emotion, long miscast as little more than nagging neurosis and even masochism. Despite its reputation, guilt - once properly harnessed and leveraged - can be more positive than negative and therefore more tonic than toxic.

Yes, guilt can be good for you, which is why at long last, I've come to feel good about, well, sometimes feeling bad.

"We've only recently come to understand that guilt - historically perceived strictly as a distressing emotion - can be constructive," says Will Bynum, an associate professor of family medicine and community health at the Duke University School of Medicine, who has studied guilt as well as its cousin, shame. "We now have a new concept of guilt as a potential source for growth. It can point us toward actions we can take to improve our lives."

Could've, should've, would've

The American Psychological Association defines guilt as "a self-conscious emotion characterized by a painful appraisal of having done (or thought) something that is wrong and often by a readiness to take action designed to undo or mitigate this wrong."

It's a feeling of could've, should've, would've that's often termed a "self-aware" emotion. It's a twinge in our guts, a voice whispering warnings in our heads - it's the reminder that we have a conscience.

Almost everyone at some point - except, say, psychopaths and sociopaths - feels the pang of guilt. In one study, 68 percent of participants reported having felt guilty at some point.

In the best case, guilt signals that we've come up short of the standards of behavior that we set for ourselves, as well as those of our culture and society.

"Guilt is a moral emotion," says June Tangney, a professor of psychology at George Mason University and author of the book "Shame and Guilt." Her research on guilt is regarded as seminal and is widely cited. "Recognizing your guilt can be healthy for your relationships. Your guilt about your behavior focuses you on the person you harmed and directs you toward how you can do better in the future."

Upset stomach, electric skin

Guilt is often experienced not only psychologically but also physically in the moment.

In a 2021 study, researchers interviewed Canadian adults and then showed them videos related to their interview responses and designed to induce guilt. For example, the researchers wrote, "before a video about starving children in need of donations, a participant would see 'You donate less than the average Canadian.'"

Researchers found that guilt affected the autonomic nervous system, raising electrical activity in the skin, upsetting gastric rhythms in the stomach and lowering swallowing rates.

We humans have no difficulty finding satisfactory rationales for our guilt. A 2022 study identified 1,515 reasons that 604 German adults gave for feeling guilty.

Telling lies or withholding information or the truth topped the list, followed by spending too little time with or inadequately taking care of family members. Women proved more likely to feel guilty about family issues and the well-being of others, whereas men felt guilt more often about misbehavior and relationship problems.

The researchers said the disparity might reflect gender differences in Germany, where women "on average, spend 52.4% more time per day on unpaid care work … than men." But they also equivocated, adding that "such differences should also not be overinterpreted or overemphasized."

Nature and nurture

I've personally never lacked for reasons to feel guilty.

Growing up, I felt guilty because my mother had been stricken with spinal meningitis in infancy that left her profoundly deaf. I felt bad for her. It seemed unjust that I could hear. All through boyhood, guilt also gnawed at me for misbehaving in school, getting poor grades and being insufficiently athletic.

Into my mid-30s, I faulted myself - altogether justifiably, mind you - for my failures to work harder, earn or save enough money, establish my independence sooner and take my family responsibilities more seriously.

As in my case, guilt typically emerges early in our lives.

"Guilt comes from both nature and nurture," says Michael Lewis, developmental psychologist and professor emeritus at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, who has researched emotions in infancy and childhood.

"It has to do with the standards your parents expect you to meet as a child, and how they then respond to your missing the mark," Lewis said. "If they encourage you to take responsibility for your failures, you're given an opportunity to learn from the experience and improve."

Trading remorse for relief

Of what, exactly, do I, at age 72, still feel guilty today? Much. But if I've learned anything (and, for the record, my wife seriously doubts it), it's that feeling bad can occasionally be good for you.

My lifelong guilt trip has evolved into a guilty pleasure of sorts. Guilt fuels me with fresh incentive to do and be better. It forces me to recognize my mistakes, fulfill my obligations and apologize to those I've wronged. My guilt insistently steers me toward virtue.

I now see guilt as inherently instructive, tangible proof that I've learned from my misdeeds.

But this attitude is far from easy to achieve. Guilt affects us for good or for ill depending on how we experience and manage it. The trick to replacing remorse with relief, really, is to learn how to distinguish between the healthy guilt that can help you and the unhealthy kind. But how do we best acknowledge, address and channel our guilt?

Healthy guilt is realistic and justified, a self-correction that promotes personal development, whereas unhealthy guilt is distorted and festers, eating into our self-respect and stunting our growth.

To get better at managing guilt, for starters, accept responsibility for your guilt rather than try to deny its existence. Research says to give yourself credit for holding yourself accountable. Learn from your mistakes, make amends accordingly and, above all, forgive yourself.

"Anticipate your guilt," advises Roy F. Baumeister, professor of psychology at the University of Queensland in Australia, president of the International Positive Psychology Association and author of numerous landmark studies about guilt.

"Thinking ahead about guilt works even better than later acknowledging it," Baumeister says. "If you get an inkling you're about to do wrong to someone and will feel guilty about it afterwards, just stop yourself. The sooner you see the guilt coming, the better prepared you'll be to prevent it."