The Irresponsibility of Guilt

Feeling Good - Fig. 8.1If you have actually done something inappropriate or hurtful, does it follow that you deserve to suffer? If you feel the answer to this question is yes, then ask yourself, “How long must I suffer? One day? A year? For the rest of my life? What sentence will you choose to impose on yourself? Are you willing to stop suffering and making yourself miserable when your sentence has expired? This would at least be a responsible way to punish yourself because it would be time-limited. But what is the point of abusing yourself with guilt in the first place? If you did make a mistake and act in a hurtful way, your guilt won’t reverse your blunder in some magical manner. It won’t speed your learning processes so as to reduce the chance you’ll make the same mistake in the future. Other people won’t love and respect you more because you are feeling guilty and putting yourself down in this manner. Nor will your guilt lead to productive living. So what’s the point?

Many people ask, “But how could I behave morally and control my impulses if I don’t feel guilt?” This is the probation-officer approach to living. Apparently you view yourself as so willful and uncontrollable that you must constantly castigate yourself in order to keep from going wild. Certainly, if your behavior has a needlessly hurtful impact on others, a small amount of painful remorse will add to your awareness more effectively than a sterile recognition of your goof-up with no emotional arousal. But it certainly never helped anyone to view [themselves] as a bad person. More often than not, the belief that you are bad contributes to the “bad” behavior.

Change and learning occur most readily when you (a) recognize that an error has occurred and (b) develop a strategy for correcting the problem. An attitude of self-love and relaxation facilitates this, whereas guilt often interferes.

For example, occasionally patients criticize me for making a sharp comment that rubs them the wrong way. This criticism usually only hurts my feelings and arouses my guilt if it contains a grain of truth. To the extent that I feel guilty ad label myself as “bad,” I tend to react defensively. I have the urge to either deny or justify my error, or to counterattack because that feeling of being a “bad person” is so odious. This makes it much more difficult for me to admit and correct the error. If, in contrast, I do not harangue myself or experience any loss of self-respect, it is easy to admit my mistake. Then I can readily correct the problem and learn from it. The less guilt I have, the more effectively I can do this.

Thus, what is called for when you do goof up is a process of recognition, learning, and change. Does guilt help you with any of these? I don’t believe it does. Rather than facilitating your recognition of your error, guilt engages you in a coverup operation. You want to close your ears to any criticism. You can’t bear to be in the wrong because it feels so terrible. This is why guilt is so counterproductive.

You may protest, “How can I know I’ve done something wrong if I don’t feel guilty? Wouldn’t I just indulge in a blind rampage of uncontrolled, destructive selfishness if it weren’t for my guilt?”

Anything is possible, but I honestly doubt this would happen. You can replace your guilt with a more enlightened basis for a moral behavior–empathy. Empathy is the ability to visualize the consequences, good and bad, of your behavior. Empathy is the capacity to conceptualize the impact of what you do on yourself and on the other person, and to feel appropriate and genuine sorrow and regret without labeling yourself as inherently bad. Empathy gives you the necessary mental and emotional climate to guide your behavior and self-enhancing manner in the absence of the whip of guilt.

Using these criteria, you can readily determine whether your feelings represent a normal and healthy sense of remorse or a self-defeating, distorted sense of guilt. Ask yourself:

1. Did I consciously and willfully do something “bad,” “unfair,” or needlessly hurtful that I shouldn’t have? Or am I irrationally expecting myself to be perfect, all-knowing, or all-powerful?

2. Am I labeling myself a bad or tainted person because of this action? Do my thoughts contain other cognitive distortions, such as magnification, overgeneralization, etc.?

3. Am I feeling a realistic regret or remorse, which results from an empathic awareness of the negative impact of my action? Are the intensity and duration of my painful emotional response appropriate to what I actually did?

4. Am I learning from my error and developing a strategy for change, or am I moping and ruminating nonproductively or even punishing myself in a destructive manner?

Burns, David. [1980] 2000. Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. New York: HarperCollins. [From the section The Irresponsibility of Guilt, pp. 204-207, within chapter 8, Ways of Defeating Guilt, pp. 198-228. Figure 8.1 on p. 205.]

Feeling Good - p. 207

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