Why Guilt is Good!
July 25, 2022
Emotions activate for a reason.  You can think of them as “signals” designed to bring valuable information into your awareness.  The type of information depends on the emotion.  Each emotion is designed to serve a different purpose.

Guilt is no exception.  Contrary to popular belief, Guilt is a healthy emotion.  Without this “self-correcting” emotion, you run the risk of behaving in ways that deviate from your values and beliefs.  When you pay attention to Guilt and can recognize why it is active, Guilt can serve as a valuable moral compass of sorts.

Here’s how Guilt works…

Introducing Guilt
In a previous blog article called “Why do People Get Angry” we established Anger as an emotion that activates when someone does something or something occurs that violates your values and beliefs.  Another important detail regarding Anger is this emotion is outward facing.  In essence, Anger is “watching” what goes on around you.

Guilt on the other hand is an inward facing emotion.  This is because Guilt is an emotion that actives when YOU do something that violates your values and beliefs.  Guilt is monitoring your own behavior and when you act in a way that doesn’t align with your values and beliefs, Guilt will activate to let you know.

Guilt in Action
Let’s start with a couple of simple examples.

Let’s say you believe stealing is wrong.  If you were to think about stealing a candy bar from a local convenience store, your Guilt will likely activate.  In this case, you haven’t done anything that deviates from your values and beliefs… yet.  You’re just thinking about it.  Thanks to your Guilt, you might choose not to steal the candy.  In this example, Guilt prevents you from behaving in a way that deviates from your values and beliefs.

Alternatively, using this same example, let’s say you’re an adolescent, impulsive teenager and you do steal the candy bar.  If you truly believe stealing is wrong, on the way home when you’re thinking about it, Guilt is likely to activate.  In this example, the value of your Guilt could include an opportunity to make amends (maybe go back later and pay for it) or realize the importance of not stealing and that may prevent you from doing it again.

On the other hand, if you are someone who believes stealing is okay, your Guilt won’t activate when you think about stealing something and it won’t activate if you actually do.

An Important Distinction
People often confuse Guilt and Shame, but these are two very different emotions.  Knowing the difference can help you act with intention when either of these emotions activate.

The easiest way to distinguish Guilt from Shame is to think along the lines that Guilt translates into “I did something bad” whereas Shame is “I am bad”.  Guilt focuses on a specific behavior.  Shame focused on self-worth.  (I’ll cover more on Shame in a future article.)

These can feel like similar emotions because they are both inward focused emotions.  They are, however, very different from one another as described above.

Another Angle Regarding Guilt & Anger
When someone does something that causes their Guilt to activate, there’s a good chance there’s someone else on the receiving side who’s Anger might be active.

Using the same example above, if you are the parent of the child who steals the candy bar and you believe stealing is wrong, your Anger is likely to activate.  This is because Anger is an emotion that actives when someone does something or something happens that violates your values and beliefs.

If you think stealing is wrong and your kid steals something, your Anger will activate.  The question is, what’s the best way for you to respond to this active Anger?

Remember, Guilt focuses on behavior and Shame focuses on self-worth.  If you are a parent who is informed about emotions, your response to Anger will focus on the specific behavior that has violated your values and beliefs.

For example, you might firmly say “Little Jonny, I am very disappointed you chose to steal that candy bar.  I believe stealing is wrong and I believe you made a poor choice.”  The focus is on the specific behavior.

If, however, you are a parent who is misinformed about emotions, your response could sound something like “Little Jonny, what the heck were you thinking?  Sometimes I don’t know what goes on inside that head of yours!”  This is an example of a shaming response that focuses on Little Jonny as an individual rather than focusing on Jonny’s behavior.

In the business world there are examples all around us of misinformed Leaders who are less skilled when it comes to engaging skillfully with emotions.  Naturally, employees are going to do things that result in a Leader’s anger becoming active (and vice versa).  As mentioned previously, when responding to Anger, the goal is to maintain a focus on the behavior.  Here’s another example:

If Kendra fails to deliver something on time and she believes it’s important to keep commitments, Kendra's Guilt is likely to activate.

On the other side, if Kendra’s boss also believes it’s important to keep commitments, when Kendra fails to deliver something on time, her boss’s Anger is likely to active.

An informed Leader who is emotionally intelligent might respond by firmly saying “Kendra, I’m very disappointed you missed the deadline.  That has a significant impact on the team’s ability to meet certain milestones and it’s unacceptable.”  (This response focuses on the behavior.)

A misinformed Leader who is less adept at engaging with difficult emotions might say something like ““Kendra… I can’t imagine how you allowed this to happen!  You really have me worried if we can trust you!”  (This response focuses on Kendra as an individual.)

Next time you do something (or think about doing something) that violates one of your own values and beliefs – pay attention.  Your Guilt – the powerful, inward focused emotion – is likely to activate in an effort to guide your behavior so it aligns with your values and beliefs.

Furthermore, the next time your Anger activates because someone else has done something that violates your values and beliefs – pause for a second or two.  Try to craft a response that focuses on the specific behavior that is in violation with what you believe rather than saying something that diminishes or questions the individual’s self-worth.