What an angry 11-year-old, a pair of cowboy boots, and a dent in the wall taught me about guilt and why it’s not always a bad thing.
You might be thinking, “But guilt is bad. Isn’t it Amanda?”
Well, not necessarily.
That might be a controversial statement, but it is also true.
Guilt can take a lot of different forms. And in some cases, guilt is a good thing. There are three different reasons that guilt is not a useless emotion.
- Guilt keeps us on the right track
- Guilt gives us natural consequences
- Guilt forces us to be better people
Read on to find out why you don’t need to feel guilty about feeling guilty.
The Big Picture of Guilt
So what is guilt?
According to my favorite definition by Miriam-Webster, guilt is “a feeling of deserving blame for offenses.”
In real life, this will look very different for every person.
It can be brought on by actual wrong-doing. Or the perception of wrong-doing.
It can be warranted. Or completely undeserved.
But what you’re left with, in the end, is that sick feeling in your stomach. Plus racing thoughts chanting coulda’, woulda’, shoulda’ in an endless loop.
The list of reasons to feel guilty is staggering. Personally, my guilt revolves around being sick, not being the best stepmom ever, not being a perfect wife, not having a clean enough house, working from home <<and on and on for a very long time>>.
A change in perspective
I have historically had a very negative opinion of guilt. If I’m experiencing a negative emotion, it has to be a bad thing.
That all changed with a simple statement to my stepdaughter.
Picture this – my husband and I both notice a giant dent in our wall with the drywall cracked on both sides.
Troy (the tall hairy guy in all our family pictures) immediately recognizes it for what it is. A blatant attempt on the structure and craftsmanship of our house. I take a little longer to come around. Surely my sweet innocent stepchildren wouldn’t do something so boneheaded, right?
The typical roundup of children determined that no one did it. It wasn’t their fault. It had to have been [insert sibling’s name here]. Off they went, universally grounded from everything for the weekend. One bawling hysterically and two looking dumb-founded.
Any guesses who the guilty party was?
To shorten the story, I’ll jump to the end. As we were tucking in and saying goodnight to everyone, the guilty 11-year-old was still crying pretty hard. We had decided to go to bed and talk about it with her in the morning to make sure our emotions were in check.
I kissed her goodnight and told her she’d face the consequences and then we’d move on. Her response was, “I just feel really bad about doing it.”
Immediately, without even thinking about it, I told her, “That’s a good thing. Feeling guilty means you care.“
If you couldn’t hear it or see it, just know that my brain stuttered and blew a fuse at that moment.
Several of my long-held beliefs about guilt had just been challenged. Namely:
- You should hold on to guilt and dwell on it
- People are mad at you when you feel guilty
- If you’re feeling guilty you’re a bad person
So let’s break these down and take a closer look at them and how they are untrue.
Untrue – You should hold onto guilt
You might have already figured this one out on your own. It sounds pretty simple, right?
But let me ask you a question…Are you still feeling guilty for long past things?
If so, it might be time to analyze what purpose it’s serving in your life.
In the case of my stepdaughter, she learned her lesson. Once guilt had taught her the lesson she needed to learn, she was safely able to move on and continue living life, but with a better perspective on anger management.
Don’t let guilt drag you into the ‘depths of despair’. Learn your lesson and move on. If someone else continues to hold a grudge, you can’t control that. Maybe they will read a blog post about forgiveness. Or maybe they won’t. But that doesn’t need to hold you back.
Untrue – People are mad at you when you feel guilty
On its face, this one seems true. Admittedly, in many cases it is true.
Imagine the freedom, though, of realizing that guilt doesn’t always mean someone is angry at you. And even if they were, they might not be anymore.
Personally, I’m much harder on myself when I think I’ve angered or disappointed someone. My brain tells me I NEED to feel guilty so that they’ll forgive me.
But then I remember that after we had a chance to process the situation, we weren’t mad at my stepdaughter. Disappointed? Yes. Less trusting? Absolutely. And if you think she’s ever getting a peach tea again, well, you’re wrong.
But she recognized what she did wrong, made attempts to fix it, and faced her consequences. If she were to continue feeling guilty because she thought we were mad, it would only be for her benefit, not ours.
If you’re worried about someone being mad at you, use your guilt to motivate you to make amends. But when you’ve done everything you can, feel free to let go of guilt. You might find that the person you were worried about wasn’t even mad at you to begin with.
Untrue – If you’re feeling guilty you’re a bad person
This one is wrong in multiple ways. But in the easiest way to explain.
Let’s go back to my statement to my stepdaughter. “Feeling guilty means you care.” It’s a safe bet that if you don’t feel any guilt at all, you don’t care about your actions or how they impact others.
Sure, you may have done something bad. But that doesn’t inherently make you bad.
Even more, you may not have done anything bad at all! Take people with chronic illness (or any type of illness) for example. A person with Fibromyalgia will absolutely feel guilty for taking another day off work, or spending a whole day resting, or not being able to participate in an activity. But they did not bring their illness upon themselves. And more than likely don’t have any control over being sick that day.
Only feel guilty for the things you need to feel guilty for. Don’t feel guilty for being a bad person, but feel guilty for doing a bad thing. Feel guilty for how your actions affect others, but don’t feel guilty for those actions if you have no control over them.
How Guilt Is A Good Thing
Guilt keeps us on the right track
Assuming you’re not a sociopath (um…you’re not, right?), then you’re going to feel guilt in your life. It’s going to feel unpleasant, and then you’re going to learn to adapt your behavior to not feel that feeling again.
I think of it as God’s built-in conscience checker.
That little niggling feeling tells me I’ve hurt someone, done something I shouldn’t, am letting someone down, etc.
With any luck, I listen to the niggling feeling before it becomes full-on guilt. I would much rather course-correct than undertake an apology tour for my wrongdoings.
These constant reminders throughout life eventually develop us into well-rounded citizens of society that can interact with other humans fairly and kindly.
Guilt gives us natural consequences
It’s somewhat funny to think of natural consequences for adults. But they work so well for kids, shouldn’t we have them, too?
When someone faces a natural consequence, it generally triggers a series of responses. It makes a person self-reflect on their actions. What did they do wrong? Could they have done anything different? Once self-reflection takes place, a person can then self-improve. They take those thoughts and reflections and turn them into action.
Additionally, natural consequences allow us a sense of completion. Let’s look at an example of someone robbing a bank. The robber will spend forever looking over their shoulder if they are not caught and face the consequences of their actions. The negative feeling of guilt provides a consequence that we can face, which triggers remorse, so there is an ‘end’.
Granted, some guilt will last quite a while. But, then, some actions have much more dramatic consequences.
What if you didn’t do anything wrong
Another thing I want to look at before moving on from this point is how guilt is a natural consequences even for unnecessary guilt, or guilt we can do nothing about.
Take the guilt I frequently feel about my health and the impact it has on my family. As I mentioned previously, I didn’t do anything to cause my illnesses. And yet I still feel guilt.
The natural consequence is that I feel bad for letting down my family, costing them money, not being as available and happy as I could be, etc. The guilt spurs me on to continue the fight for improving my health. If I didn’t feel the rotten feeling of guilt, I’m not sure what I would use to keep me moving.
Can you think of a time that guilt has helped you even if you didn’t do anything wrong?
Guilt forces us to be better people
I’m not just talking about making better decisions. I’m talking the ‘big picture, do better at life’ type improvement. If you don’t believe me, look at the following quotes from people who are much more eloquent than me.
Or how about this one?
Then, of course, there’s a philosopher. They tend to be a blunt and unforgiving group.
I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling a sudden urge to “go into the world and do well. But more importantly, go into the world and do good.” (Another quote, this time by Minor Myers, Jr).
I don’t think my little words can do much to improve on the topic after these folks. But I like knowing that good can and does come from guilt. It makes me wonder what other negative emotions I should be channeling.
Wrapping it up
It seems that sometimes we need something to move us forward. And, honestly, if guilt is the thing that forces self-reflection, self-improvement, and forgiveness how could it be bad?
Just make sure you’re not falling into the trap of letting your guilt drag you down or convince you that you are a bad person or unforgivable.
Use guilt while you have it and move on from it when the time is appropriate.
I’m still working on this, but I almot guarantee that we’ll be happier stepmoms, women with chronic illness, and people in general if we rework our opinions on guilt.
Are you in? If so, let me know below. I’d love to hear about you turning guilt into good!
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