Guilt is the fourth unhealthy negative emotion in our Emotions series. We experience guilt when we hold unhealthy beliefs about transgressing our own moral code, do not live up to our moral code or hurting the feelings of a significant other.
Guilt is mostly created by the rigidly held beliefs that you “absolutely shouldn’t have” thought or done something or that you “absolutely should have” done something.
For example, you may believe “I have done something morally wrong and I absolutely should not have done that wrongdoing and I am a bad person for doing that”
You can feel guilt about many things. You may feel guilty about being depressed believing “I shouldn’t be depressed, it’s wrong to feel this way when I have so much, I should be grateful for what I have”. This belief would lead to the self damning belief “I am a bad person” which perpetuates the cycle of guilt and depression. You may experience guilt about some behaviour, for example infidelity, telling lies, getting unhealthily angry with a loved one, keeping secrets and so on.
Remorse is the healthy negative emotion that partners guilt, which occurs when you hold healthy or rational beliefs about breaking your own moral standards or about hurting the feelings of a significant other. For example, a healthy belief would be “I have broken my moral code and I wish I hadn’t done that wrongdoing and I accept that I have done something I perceive as morally wrong. I accept myself as a worthwhile and fallible human being even though I have done something wrong. I will make amends and ask for forgiveness for what I have done.”
How do you know if you are guilty or remorseful?
When you think you are guilty you believe you have committed the sin and you tend to take all the responsibility for the transgression and tend not to think others have any responsibility. For example, imagine you had promised to record your best friend’s favourite programme whilst she was away on a business trip and you failed to do so. If you hold an unhealthy belief that, “I absolutely should always do what I am say I am going to do” you will disturb yourself over this failure to act in accordance with this belief. You may tend to over apologise or compensate by buying a disproportionately extravagant gift to make amends or you may try to avoid contact with your friend.
If you held the healthy belief that” I strongly prefer to act in accordance with what I say I am going to do but I don’t absolutely have to” then you will experience remorse and will more than likely apologise for your failure to your friend without begging for forgiveness.
When we experience guilt we also believe we will be punished in some way for that sin.
To escape the pain of guilt we try and escape the feeling in self defeating ways, avoiding situations or people so you are not confronted by your feeling of guilt, you may use alcohol or recreational drugs to suppress the feelings.
When we feel guilty we may feel like begging for forgiveness and agreeing to never commit the sin again, we may even feel like punishing ourselves taking physical penance or by acts of deprivation.
If you are experiencing the healthy negative emotion of remorse you will be able to think of your behaviour in context, with an understanding and self acceptance as a “fallible human being”. With remorse you do not think there will be some kind of retribution for your sin and you are able to keep perspective and recognise your responsibility as well as others in the given situation.
When feeling remorseful you make appropriate amends for your poor behaviour without making excuses and face up to the healthy discomfort. Instead of begging for forgiveness as in guilt you ask for forgiveness and have no desire to punish yourself or become defensive about your actions.
- Become and remain aware of your values and the moral code you wish to apply to your life but don’t hold your values rigidly. No one is perfect.
- Take responsibility for your actions and acknowledge any transgression and then ask for forgiveness, make amends and learn from it.
If asking for forgiveness or making amends is no longer an option, then forgive yourself and accept that you are a fallible human being who has made a mistake. Learn from it.