Guilt is the emotion we feel when we act against our own moral standards. If we lie to a good friend, steal something that does not belong to us, or cheat on our partner, we feel guilty. Guilt, like all emotions, is a response to our thoughts/beliefs in relation to our chosen values. Consequently, if something is not a value to us, then we won’t feel guilty in betraying it (for example, a criminal won’t feel guilty if he doesn’t think his crime is immoral).
Psychologically, guilt is the proper emotional response to actions we take that violate our moral standards. It tells us that we have done something that goes against what is most important to us. If we lie to a friend, we feel guilty because we value that friend and know that we have violated an unspoken trust to be honest with him. Even if the friend never finds out, we still feel guilty because we have violated our own integrity.
Guilt, in this sense, is a positive emotion, for it tells us when we have taken an action that goes against our value system, and it gives us a chance to do something about it. In the case of lying to a friend, letting the friend know we have lied, making amends where possible, and sincerely committing to not lying in the future, will help to dissipate the guilt.
One crucial distinction to make with guilt is whether it is earned or unearned. Just because we feel guilty does not mean we have earned that guilt. Earned guilt is what we feel when we have taken an action that violates our rational moral standards. Unearned guilt is what we feel when we take an action that violates irrational moral standards. Examples of earned guilt are described above—lying, stealing, and cheating. All of these actions violate rational standards of living and prevent us from being able to survive and be happy. The guilt we would feel from these actions would be earned.
Unearned guilt is feeling guilty for things that we are not responsible for or for violating an irrational standard we have set for ourselves. For example, feeling guilty for the starving children in Africa, or for not being “perfect” all the time is unearned guilt. Unfortunately, feeling unearned guilt is all too common. I see it frequently in therapy. Sometimes, the guilt is so powerful that it causes severe anxiety and depression. This is very unfortunate, and also unnecessary, if people can learn to distinguish between guilt that is earned and guilt that is not.
Here are 4 rules for distinguishing between earned and unearned guilt.
Rule 1: You are only responsible for your own actions; you are not responsible for the actions of others. You are not responsible for the actions of your friends, family, or strangers. You do not have control over what other people decide to do. You should not feel guilty if your spouse becomes a drug addict and you couldn’t stop him. You should not feel guilty because your friend is unhappy and you haven’t been able to cheer her up. You should not feel guilty if your friend gets fired and you get a promotion. This rule also applies to so called “collective guilt.” Collective guilt is guilt that people feel when some individuals from their race, ethnicity, lineage, profession, political party, etc., commit evil or immoral acts. This type of guilt is also unearned and should be thrown off. White people should not feel guilty about slavery. Black people should not feel guilty for the immoral actions of other Blacks. Germans should not feel guilty over the Holocaust. Businessmen should not feel guilty or apologize for Bernie Madoff. The proper emotions to feel in all of these cases should be disgust and outrage. To feel guilty for the acts of others that happen to be associated with you in some way is unearned.
Rule 2: You are not responsible for making other people happy. Happiness is a personal achievement. You cannot make someone else happy. For those who have tried, ask yourself if it has ever worked. Many times, the other person doesn’t appreciate or even resents your attempts at making him happy. But, people feel guilty all the time for feeling they have failed to make their (spouse, friend, boyfriend, girlfriend, parents) happy. When people put this responsibility on their shoulders, they are doomed to failure and inevitable unearned guilt. Instead, provide the proper support and encouragement for the people you care about, but do not take responsibility for what has to be their achievement.
Rule 3: Make sure your standards for yourself are rational. When I worked with college students, I had clients who felt guilty because they didn’t get straight As all the time, even though they were studying diligently and putting in their full effort. Instead of congratulating themselves and feeling pride, they only criticized themselves and felt guilty, which brought on anxiety and depression. Having high standards is fine, as long as those standards are realistic and you give yourself recognition when you sincerely do your best to achieve them, whether you actually achieve them or not.
Rule 4: You should not feel guilty for thoughts that you have or images that you picture in your mind, even if you consider those thoughts/images immoral or evil. This widely held belief causes people much silent torture and feelings of guilt. But, thinking or picturing something does not make it so. Only actions should be judged good or evil. In addition, many things pop into our minds during the day and during sleep, and we don’t have direct control over them. You may see a man or woman walking down the street, and picture them naked, or have sexual thoughts about them. This is normal and natural, and you should not feel guilty about this. You may be angry with someone and wish that harm came to him. You should not feel guilty about this either. If you were to actually hit the person, then that would be wrong and then you would justifiably feel guilty. Many people believe that they should think “good,” “clean,” “moral” thoughts all the time, and if they stray from this, then they conclude that they are a bad person and deserve to feel guilty. Religion is probably the main culprit in this widely held belief. But, this is not how the human mind works, and you should not feel guilty for having “immoral,” “dirty,” or “bizarre” thoughts that aren’t acted upon. (As a side note, if you are having obsessive thoughts about things that are disturbing to you, and you can’t get rid of them, then seeing a therapist may be warranted. Nevertheless, you should still not feel guilty for just having the thoughts.)
Distinguishing between earned and unearned guilt can sometimes be challenging, because you might have lived by particular irrational beliefs and standards for many years, and the guilt follows automatically. It will take time and effort to consciously become aware of the source and type of your guilt, and even longer to eradicate the unearned type. Therapy can be a huge help in accomplishing this. I recommend cognitive therapy, because it teaches you how to explicitly identify your incorrect beliefs and standards that lead to unearned guilt, and how to change those beliefs and standards so they are more accurate and supportive to your life. This takes time and effort, but it is greatly worth it in order to free yourself from a lifetime of unearned guilt.
(Originally appeared on Examiner.com)