Powerful techniques to optimize your emotions, beliefs, and behaviors

Unhealthy Guilt Versus Healthy Remorse

Unhealthy guilt comes from violating our moral codes.  When we violate a moral code we get the experience of guilt.  Guilt, as opposed to remorse, is built upon inner demandingness (We should've done _________________________, but we didn't.) and negative self-labeling (I am a louse, no good, worthless, or I am worthy of abusive self-punishment.)


In short we break our rule or code and then knock ourselves with negative self-labeling or self-punitive behavior.  Excessive guilt is guilt that goes on for lengthy periods and may be obsessive. Obsessive guilt blocks us from other emotions.

Remorse is much healthier than guilt with its shoulding and condemnation. The differences between "unhealthy guilt" and "healthy remorse":


Takes on more responsibility than situation warrants.
Self-condemning rather than focused on correcting wrong.
Is unforgiving.
Demands we act a certain way.


Assumes appropriate responsibility for wrongs.
Focused on correcting behavior and wrongs if possible.
Can forgive self.
Prefers we don't act a certain way rather than demands.
Is less harsh in self-criticism.

A common troubling emotion, guilt is witnessed in folks hammering themselves with should, must, and have got to rules, and then down themselves with critical name calling or self-punishment. Guilt distracts from behavior change and righting wrongs. Many people feel guilty about things, yet still break their rules. They are quick to blast themselves. They construct guilt based identities such as "I'm useless and no good." They still break their demanding rules so guilt is not a very good motivator, while remorse appears to get better behavior change.

Think about how many people guilt trip themselves for their eating habits, yet go on binges or carry on the same habits. How many break their religious codes over and over and dump on themselves. Nothing much changes.

Guilt doesn't make for a workable conscience. Guilt doesn't work as well as remorse where we notice strong negative consequences and having concern and empathy for others.  Guilty individuals become immune to self-punishment--they get used to it.  The negative self-label loses its sting.   While guilt makes us feel bad, it doesn't really stop bad behavior.  In fact it may even contribute to it by creating negative self-images that the guilty come to believe. If you feel like a low life crumb--how are you most likely to act?

Changing guilt can be done with belief change.  We alter the should and must rules to preferences and we describe ourselves in less absolute and critical ways.  We also focus on doing the right thing and correcting wrongs.  We're more likely to make headway with remorse in behavior change.  Guilt doesn't pull the cart in the direction we want to go.

Focusing on our concern for others and behavior change does a good job where guilt punishes you, but doesn't stop bad behavior very well. Guilt based ethics don't work effectively or efficiently. Concern, empathy for others, and seeing bad consequences performs better than shoulding and self-downing.

You can spot guilt by noticing excessive tiredness, appetite loss or gain, sleep difficulties, and self-abuse. Typical inner speech in guilt is: "I should not have done that--I'm no good (or some other negative label).

Guilt with its self-blame defocuses us from required behavioral change and puts the focus on us. If we buy the negative self-label, we'll often act in accordance with it. If we view ourselves as worthless persons, we'll act like worthless persons. Better to experience regret and remorse and do what we best do to alter our future actions.
It's always wise to accept ourselves and do what better be done, then waste time downing yourself. Accept that you are multi-faceted and not an uni-dimensional negative label.

Guilt condemns us rather than the mistake. Guilt is self-centered. By making ourselves guilty we're more likely to repeat the behavior. How many guilty overeaters or alcoholics guilt themselves over and over, but get nowhere? Guilt, if you examine it closely, rarely stops anyone. Guilt is energy sapping. Regret and remorse, which is based on preferences and wants, reminds us of our mistakes and is behavior-focused rather than self-focused.

Be wary of hindsight. If we did not know better at the time, we should not have known better period. If we demand we should've known better, when we didn't, we deny the reality of the past situation. Accept our human fallibility and that we don't always know the right course of action. We are fallible. Many, many forces influence our imperfect choices.

No one is completely responsible for what happens. Notions of cause and effect can create the illusion of just one cause. Example: You lost your car keys. Were you unfocused or careless at the time? Was it because you were distracted after arguing with your partner hours before? The heavy meal that left you foggy brained? Gravity which permits you to live on Earth and put the car keys down? A job you had 4 years ago and a graduation party 8 years prior to that which all left you to be in the right place and time to lose your car keys? Obviously an uncountable number of contributing factors went into you losing your keys. It wasn't only the choices you made. Be willing to share the responsibility with the universe or at least with the Earth part of it.

Replace shoulding, musting, and have-got-to-ing with preferring and wanting. Replace self-condemnation with self-acceptance. Discover ways to change your behavior and then put your new behaviors into action the next time. Condemn the sin not the sinner.

Confess your errors.  Emotional Writing is excellent for this.

Ask the following:

What would your mistake or silly display appear like six months from now?

Are errors learning experiences? Or ways to knock ourselves?

Watch out too for making yourself feel guilty about being guilty.

How much awareness did you have when you violated the rule? Was there something you missed?

Watch out for being perfect. Saints made mistakes and had learning experiences.

The resolution of guilt often involves:

Denial or rationalization of guilt. Because guilt can be painful it is avoided by via our defenses like denial or rationalization.

Clarifying and changing distorted thoughts leading to "over-responsibility", "demandingness", and abusive self-criticism.

Resolution of guilt. Becoming remorseful, expressing appropriate sorrow for actions, and making any amends required. 

The guilty person often climbs out of guilt by noticing their level of responsibility changing.

Someone changes their guilt to remorse by reducing their self-demands (shoulds, musts, have got to's, and oughts) to preferences, wants, desires and by ending negative self-labeling like: "I'm no good", "I'm worthless".

Some self-counseling questions to work your way though guilt:

(1) What specifically occurred? What did I regret doing? Did I do anything positive? Was there something I forgot to do?  Was I forced into this situation?

(2) What caused this event?  Who all was involved? Was this an accident? 

(3) What part of this situation did I cause?  What did others or circumstances cause? What was your percentage of responsibility for what happened?

(4) What did I learn from this event?  Have I set about to do things differently in the future?

(5) Are you a fallible human who makes mistakes and has learning experiences?

(6) At the time how clouded or under duress was your decision making?  Were you clearly aware of all your choices?  Were there choices taken away by the circumstances?  Was your situation new to you?


Visit our Forgiveness Exercise.

Guilt Driven Hindsight is often a part of the guilt experience.  Guilt driven hindsight is a common challenge for many.  It falls into the category of a self-defeating beliefs and is shows up during depressive rumination.  This guilt style hindsight is generally uprooted through challenging the basic assumptions that we SHOULD'VE done something different than what we chose to do at the time.  The guilty hindsight generally has a negative self-label attached.  Example: "I should've known better and I'm an idiot for pulling that stunt."  Folks, who suffer from this self-knocking for not magically knowing better at the time, might ask themselves these questions:


*Did I really know better at the time?

*Did I make a good choice given the information I had and how I felt at that time? Did my choice seem right or mostly right at that time?

*Does having negative hindsight motivate me to do better now or am I just chastising myself?

*What's the evidence for and against my negative hindsight? What's the quality of that evidence?

*Where is it written that I SHOULD'VE or MUST'VE known better?

*Should you know what to do or say every-time? Is that humanly possible?  People do make errors.

*What exactly do I regret?

*Can I really for-tell how things turnout or never make mistakes?

*How does making a mistake magically turn me into a negative label? Can I really be one negative thing or am I more multi-faceted with an array of positive, neutral, and some negative traits and behaviors.

*Would it be more beneficial to find a way to do better next time instead of pounding on yourself with a negative label?

*What did you learn from the event? Can you do better the next time you run into similar circumstances?

*Would self-forgiveness help here?  See our Forgiveness Exercise.

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