The Positives and Negatives of Guilt
Earle Donelson, Ph.D.
Samaritan Counseling Center
You often hear about stress as a negative thing. All too often it is. Too much stress has the tendency to affect our mental, emotional and physical well-being. However, there is also a positive side to stress. The right amount of stress can motivate us, inspire us, push us to accomplish many things. Stress can bring out the productive, creative sides of us. Think of how we are sometimes stretched into growth and change by stress. I, for one, sometimes need deadlines or a good dose of stress to get things done. But sometimes, I feel a little guilty doing things that way.
Guilt, like stress, can have both a positive and negative impact on our lives. Typically, and more frequently, we associate guilt with the negative. There's guilt by association. A guilty conscious. Guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Not guilty. Guilty as sin. Even Webster's views guilt in negative terms:
Guilt, n. 1) a state of wrongdoing; wickedness; 2) deserving of punishment.
People often determine good and bad by the presence or absence of feelings of guilt. Each individual responds to guilt in their own way. Do they show remorse? Do they ask forgiveness? Are they sincere? Frequently, we hear of individuals who cannot live with their guilt. In Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart," the main character was eventually done in by his own guilt. Some people, however, simply, do not feel guilt the same way that others do. There are always those in the news, literature, in the media, etc., who display little guilt or remorse for their actions (i.e., hardened criminals, dictators, immoral CEO's, self-serving politicians, to name a few). There are also those who use guilt to manipulate others. They may try to put us on a "guilt-trip." They try to control our emotions in order to get their way. Some of us suffer from the manipulations of others. And some of us suffer from our own self-inflicted guilt. Sometimes this guilt can be so overwhelming and have such a negative influence on us that it impacts our day-to-day functioning and interactions with others. Can any good come from guilt?
The answer is, yes. Guilt, like stress, can also have positive results. Guilt can often act as our conscience and our guide. It can influence us to "Do the right thing." It can make us realize we have behaved badly. It can make us feel remorse or sadness when we have acted in ways that hurt others. It may remind us to be good to family and friends, neighbors, strangers and the less fortunate. It can spur us to offer an apology or to make amends for our actions. It may act as a deterrent from acting one way while encouraging us to act another. It can create or foster feelings of sympathy and empathy. Guilt can actually make us better, more sensitive individuals.
So what role does guilt play in your spiritual life? How does it influence and inform your faith? Do you act in a more spiritual manner because of your beliefs, your desire to be a good, decent person, or your efforts to avoid those feelings of guilt? Do you ask forgiveness for your actions because you believe them to be wrong or to ease your conscience, or both? And is feeling guilty and asking forgiveness wrong?
Paul struggled with his feelings of guilt throughout his journey from ardent persecutor to founding father of the modern Christian Church. In Romans, he cries out with guilt, frustration and remorse that he did the things he shouldn't do and didn't do the things he knew God wanted him to do. Like Paul, I, too, know what I should do and how I should act as a Christian. On many days, I just don't come close to being the kind of person that I know God and Christ want me to be. On those days, a little guilt, like stress, can help remind me to try and be more of what I know I should be and do more of what I know I should do. On those days, a little guilt can be a good thing. Perhaps on those days, it's good to feel a little guilty.
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