Despite my freshly printed psychology degree, the first time I thought deeply about the emotion of guilt was the summer after graduation, as I planned my new curriculum for “Christian Morality.” I cracked open the faded, loaned textbook to the first chapter: Guilt. Really? I rolled my eyes. After a lifetime of it, I’d lost my taste for religion with a side of guilt. Reading on, the simple high school text, sprinkled with bolded vocabulary terms, presented guilt positively. Guilt wasn’t there to make us feel bad, but to guide us towards good actions.
Brené Brown, researcher on shame and vulnerability, agrees that guilt has a positive influence. She explains:
“We feel guilty when we hold up something we’ve done or failed to do against our values and find they don’t match up. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, but one that’s helpful. The psychological discomfort, something similar to cognitive dissonance, is what motivates meaningful change.”
Guilt, however, is often confused with shame. (It turns out that’s what I was really rolling my eyes at while reading the religion book). Brené has a simple definition for the difference between the two. Guilt says “I did something bad,” while shame says “I am bad.” I think of guilt as being related to our behaviors while shame correlates to our identities.
Although just as powerful as guilt, shame’s influence on us is only destructive. “I am bad” translates into a fear: “I am unlovable.” This fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we’re afraid of being discovered as unlovable, we hide those parts of ourselves, never allowing them the opportunity to be loved. If guilt motivates a change in an undesired behavior, shame motivates avoidant behaviors. Hiding, lying, distracting ourselves from pain.
But there’s good news—both of these uncomfortable feelings have antidotes! If guilt is bothering you about a behavior, you change the behavior or apologize for a past one. The antidote to shame is vulnerability. Fighting the urge to hide, we have to reach out to receive the empathy and connection we need instead.
Great, now that Grief & Shame 101 is over, I’m going to complicate it. Turns out guilt is only productive in the right measure. You can have too much of it, not enough of it, or guilt in the wrong places. (Catholic theology refers to these as a legalistic conscious, a lax conscience, and a wrongly-formed conscious, respectively.) There doesn’t seem to be a simple formula for knowing where the lines are around the “right amount” of guilt, but I imagine you know you’ve crossed them when you feel spiritually or emotionally unhealthy. When I’ve reached this place, I try to pinpoint the root of the guilt, to determine if it has a valid point or not.
Since guilt is connected to our values, often times the root of a guilty feeling is related to a value in our upbringings.
Exhibit A: I’d been an early-riser throughout college, but when I got married, it sounded much more appealing to stay in bed until noon. Sounded being the key word there. I started feeling guilty and anxious if I’d been awake for more than 10 minutes and hadn’t gotten up to brush my teeth yet. My husband would come in for a cuddle and I’d glance at the clock. I couldn’t figure out why I was acting like such a crazy person (and neither could my husband) until we were on our family vacation, people scattered across the rental house with cups of coffee, leisurely reading. My dad, already a half-pot of coffee in, high socks on and sneakers laced, stood up, checking his watch. “So what’s the agenda? We’re wasting daylight!” Oh. There it is. I have an internalized-dad-alarm-clock. Fun.
If your unhealthy guilt is connected to a value you no longer agree with, that’s an easy dismiss. What about when the unhealthy guilt is connected to a value you still hold true?
This is my problem and it comes from being an idealist. There are many good values and behaviors I want to have, but not enough time in one life for all of them. The parade of “too much” and “not enough” begins and I’m left with a nagging guilt to make changes. I already had an overactive guilt-gland before, but parenting has only amplified this because now it feels like not living up to my values impacts another life. I let her watch too much TV. Do I read to her enough? I didn’t pay enough attention today. Maybe we should all cut back on sugar?
When we’ve got the wrong kind of guilt, the normal antidote of changing behavior won’t work, although we often try. What I need is just one more diet. Maybe if I just sleep a little less, I’d fit it all in? [Fill in your own inner-dialogue here.] What is probably needed is a big dose of self-compassion. Unfortunately, and probably obviously, that’s easier said than done. Maybe what would help us get there is borrowing shame’s antidote: connection. I know when I am able to admit how guilty I’m feeling about something, other people's responses help me sort out whether my worry is valid, I’m being too hard on myself, or if my guilt is even grounded in reality. Maybe by confessing our excessive guilt out loud, we can absolve each other of its powerful hold on us.
 Brown, C. Brené. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York, N.Y.: Gotham, 2012