A therapist I respect recently wrote, “Guilt is good for you.” This brought me up short. We spend so much time helping people who punish themselves and constrain their lives with an overdeveloped sense of guilt that it’s easy to forget the other side of the coin. My colleague went on to limit his statement: “Guilt is good for you, provided it lasts no longer than five minutes and that it brings about a change in behavior.”
“Guilt, not agriculture or the wheel, may be the foundation of civilization.”
This got me thinking about when and where guilt is appropriate. One guideline, implicit in the comments above, is that guilt should be about behavior. One of the most common psychological mistakes people make is feeling guilty over thoughts or emotions. Sexual fantasies, for instance, are harmless. Angry feelings, thoughts of revenge against those who hurt us, are unavoidable. But many people think less of themselves for sexual or aggressive feelings. This is unfortunate. We cannot control our thoughts or feelings, and it makes no sense to feel guilt over that which we can’t control.
Unfortunately it goes further than that. Thoughts or feelings which trigger guilt feelings are also subject to defenses that keep them out of consciousness. We may briefly entertain lustful, angry, or other unacceptable thoughts or feelings only to have our internal censor kick in to suppress conscious awareness. You might assume that if we’re not conscious of the unacceptable impulse we wouldn’t feel guilty about it. You’d be wrong. It happens all the time that people feel guilty about things they’re not even aware of. You don’t get the pleasure of the fantasy – the imagined tryst with the object of desire, the daydreamed shootout with the bully – but you do get to feel guilty about it. No fair.
This is the kind of guilt that constricts people’s lives, makes them depressed and unhappy with themselves. One way that therapy works is to bring the unconscious impulses, the precursors of guilt, out into the light of day. “So you sometimes have sexual fantasies about people other than your spouse? Is this a terrible thing? Just who is hurt by this? On the contrary, perhaps you deserve to feel a little pride that you have these impulses yet choose not to act on them. You have an ethical code that you strive to live up to. Surely that is better than trying to pretend you don’t have feelings.” One of the major goals of therapy is to extend the range of conscious decision-making that people have in their lives, reducing the range of behaviors, thoughts, and feelings that are governed by unquestioned habits and assumptions.
So in what sense is guilt good for you? Guilt, when applied to behavior, is the little alarm system that tells us when we are not living up to our own standards. Where our standards come from, and how much ours are like others’, are beside the point for now. Guilt is what we feel when we have let ourselves down. Without it, we would be in an amoral world in which everyone could act on the impulse of the moment. Guilt, not agriculture or the wheel, may be the foundation of civilization.
And how to make sure that guilt only lasts a few minutes? I believe the Catholic Church teaches that forgiveness of sins requires two things: sincere repentance, and a firm intention to amend. Repentance, guilt, by itself is not enough. I’ve known many people whom I’ve felt were truly remorseful for their actions, but repeated them again at the next temptation. It takes a determination to do better next time to allow us to put guilt away. Next time we may fail again, but if we truly wish to change our behavior, eventually we will succeed.