Have you forgotten to pay a bill and then had to pay interest? After quite a bit of research, have you bought a used tractor to save money only for it to cost you a fortune in repairs? Have you backed out of the garage too quickly and taken part of the garage with you? Have you been impatient with your son and said hurtful things to him?
You probably felt guilty in all those situations. Therefore, you had, like most human beings, a normal reaction. Guilt is a natural and useful emotion in some cases, but in others it paralyzes us and turns out to be completely unjustified.
Just like cholesterol, there is good guilt and bad guilt. One type is healthy, and the other is unhealthy.
Guilt is good:
Guilt is good when I lose control and then do or say things that I regret. This was the case with my son; I felt guilty because I was angry with myself for violating my own values. I’m against hurting people unjustly, but I just did it nonetheless. When I’m upset with myself for having given in to an impulse, for having lost control, I simultaneously feel pain for mistreating my son, whom I love. Of course I regret it because he does not deserve such treatment.
Good guilt is useful in this type of situation because it allows us to readjust and improve ourselves as people, but for us to do that, this guilt must be only temporary and must, despite all expectations to the contrary, lead us to question ourselves. Following an event that stimulates this type of guilt, here are some useful questions to ask ourselves:
- What produced my anger?
- What does that tell me about my needs or values that weren’t respected?
- What were the precursory signs (physical, psychological and emotional) letting me know that my anger thermometer was rising?
- What could I have done differently?
- What would be some good things to do if a similar situation comes up so that I don’t lose control?
Not being able to feel any form of guilt when we wrong others (actions or words) may be very problematic. It may, in fact, reveal a very narcissistic personality or even a psychopathic one.
Guilt is bad:
When it is useless, harms our performance and quality of life, costs us energy and gives us nothing in return, guilt is bad. Feeling guilty about buying something that turned out to be a bad investment is one example. That guilt is probably useless because I really did carefully check the information about it, and it was completely impossible to predict that I would make a bad choice.
Consequently, what would be the way to proceed to eliminate this guilt as soon as possible in order to return to productivity and serenity? Depending on the situation, we can ask ourselves:
- Did I do the best I could based on what I knew at the time?
- Is it really that dramatic or only very disappointing?
- Could it have been worse?
- Will this event still be this important in 20 years?
- Could someone else with good judgement make the same decision?
- Is it useful to put myself down?
- How would that change the situation?
These few questions can help us to free ourselves from a guilt that is of no use to us because we were only unlucky and did something that any intelligent person could have done.
In conclusion, it is imperative to accept the fact that we are all just human beings. All human beings make mistakes, so therefore you make mistakes. You’re not perfect, but then no one else is. Being unhappy with ourselves because we are imperfect is completely unrealistic. The sooner we eliminate bad guilt, the sooner we can use all our energy for what is truly important in life.
Work Psychologist, professionnal speaker, author and business coach