By Rob Postlethwaite

Wikipedia defines guilt as “.. a cognitive or an emotional experience that occurs when a person realizes or believes – accurately or not – that he or she has compromised his or her own standards of conduct or has violated a moral standard and bears significant responsibility for that violation.

Guilt is a complex emotional experience with which we are all familiar and can play a positive or sometimes very negative role in our lives. In its positive impact on us it can motivate us into action to be better people and live lives more consistent with our own standards of behaviour. This usually means more harmoniously with those around us and/or in a manner that is better for ourselves. The guilt one feels about failing to follow through with the New Year’s resolution to exercise more or lose weight (or both) or spend more time with family rather than work etc can act as a motivator to take action. Alternatively we often dismiss the feeling of guilt by excusing ourselves with rationalizations about how it was impossible in some way for us to stick with the change in our behaviour. It may be that our expectations of ourselves were unrealistic but in failing to follow through we miss the opportunity to achieve positive change in our lives that can improve relationships or self esteem/self confidence.

It is also quite possible for us to feel guilt about things for which we are not responsible and get caught in quite negative feelings about things we could not have changed. This can be quite damaging and generate a sense of helplessness that leaves people feeling depressed. Often there is only a tenuous connection between the person and the cause of their guilt and sometimes this sense of guilt may be created or exacerbated by the blame of others around. It is often associated with the need either to understand that that we did all that we could have to change the situation or it is not something that we could have changed.

Guilt is also closely associated with the sense of remorse and sometimes shame. Remorse is an appropriate emotion that hopefully motivates us to change in some way and often discussed in the courts as evidence that the person has understood the wrongness of their behaviour and experiences a sense of guilt about it. Shame however, is a state of significant distress that can result in withdrawal and avoidance and is indicative of a sense of low self esteem and perhaps even self loathing.

Guilt is frequently used by others around us with the intention of changing our behaviour and in this context its impact is often quite negative. The intent is often to motivate us to change our behaviour in some positive manner but it may have an effect the reverse of what is intended. Parents who use guilt to effect how their children behave or employers who use it in an attempt to motivate or friends who induce feelings of guilt about how we have behaved when it doesn’t suit them, is a manipulative tactic that complicates relationships and often has a negative effect. The adolescent who is left feeling guilty about an untidy room etc may comply but will also frequently be left with feelings of anger or rebelliousness that doesn’t improve the relationship or respect of the parents.

The employee who is pressured to work harder by being left feeling guilty will in some way respond negatively and the relationship/friendship that is effected by someone creating a sense of guilt in those around will be damaged in some way. It may be that the “guilty” person changes their behaviour in a manner that seeks approval but it will also result in quite negative feelings. Sometimes this turns inwards and results in low self esteem and loss of self confidence or perhaps generates anger and aggressiveness.

It is often an issue for people with addiction problems that those around attempt to change their behaviour by inducing guilt about the addiction which is generally quite counter-productive. The most frequent response by the person with the addiction is to “treat” their (often) intense sense of guilt by drowning it out with further addictive behaviour which further damages relationships, diminishes an already low self esteem and results quite negative experiences for all. Similarly those who struggle with weight issues are often the target for comments intended to generate motivation by inducing guilt which is equally unhelpful and often naively presupposes that the overweight person doesn’t understand that their health would be improved if they were able to reduce their weight.

Similarly those who experience chronic pain or chronic illness can sometimes experience a sense of guilt about their health and their inability to maintain their role in a relationship or family. They may also experience the frustration of others around them who “make them feel guilty” about their condition and, in either case, without honest and open communication the relationships will be damaged in some way. While some people may need to manage their condition better, this is more likely to be achieved by encouragement and support than inducing guilt.

There is an old saying that “You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.” Not that many of us want to catch flies but the underlying concept is that positive relationships achieve much more than negative ones. One of the issues associated with resolving guilt is forgiveness, either of ourselves or of others. It requires overcoming the anger we experience about someone else’s behaviour or to be able to overcome the self blame that we experience. Generating anger or low self esteem in others by inducing guilt does not improve relationships or assist them to behave in a better way. Most of us know when we have behaved badly or in a manner that we are not proud of and someone else turning the blow torch on our sense of guilt does not motivate us or assist us to improve. It is very possible to address an issue that a person appropriately feels guilty about without focussing on how badly they have behaved and diminishing them personally.

The solution to these situations has to much more focussed on positive outcomes. What else could the person have done? What will lift the person to feel better about themselves or behave better in the future? People with a sense of self esteem and self confidence generally behave well, get on better with others and achieve more in their lives. People who feel badly about themselves often withdraw, relate badly, sometimes engage in quite negative behaviour and achieve less. Changing behaviour does not require punitive responses, it requires being encouraged or inspired to do better and behave in a way that you can be proud of.


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