Does Guilt Work?

One day I was feeling particularly miserable and guilty about not working hard enough. I was so sick of feeling guilty I just wanted the feeling to go away.

It was in the summer of 1996 that I decided to put guilt to the test. I wanted to completely understand guilt. Why I felt it, why these feelings were encouraged by others, and what effect it was having on my life.

I do some of my best thinking when surrounded by nature so I put on my sneakers and went for a long walk. A 5 mile walk to be specific. I decided the best way to look at my guilt was to examine specific incidences where I felt guilty. As I made the turn down the street onto the gravel path, I went back to my earliest memory of guilt.

I chuckled as I remembered an early memory. I had gone outside in my bunny slippers when my mother had told me specifically not to. I remembered feeling "What kind of person was I to disobey? There must be something wrong with me. I must be a bad person." I didn't know it at the time, but I thought if I could feel bad enough, maybe it would make me act "right."

In college, I had an 8am Art History class across campus. I wasn't a morning person, the classes were in a dark room, and didn't feel like walking that far. After a month or so into the semester I started missing some classes. I felt guilty every time. I thought about how I was wasting my parent's money, how I was not disciplined enough, how if I was a "good" student, I would MAKE myself go. Consequently, I felt bad every time I skipped Art History.

So I thought of those experiences and every specific example I could remember from age seven on. The examples were numerous. After each example, I asked the following questions.

1) Why did I feel guilty in that situation?
2) What did I hope to accomplish by feeling guilty?
3) Did feeling guilty help me accomplish what I wanted?

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As I went down the list, the answers surprised me. The reason I felt guilt in ALL the situations could be narrowed down into three categories.

  1. To get myself to behave differently
  2. I thought that's what I good people were suppose to feel
  3. To show others that I was a caring person.

The most popular reason was to try and get myself to do something I thought I "should" be doing, or stop myself from doing something I didn't think I "should" be doing.. Now here's the clincher.

Did Guilt Change Me?

The answer was a resounding, NO. In all the cases I could remember, guilt hadn't motivated me to ever make any lasting changes in how I thought or behaved. In some cases I had changed in the short-term, but in all the examples I could think of, I inevitably went back to the behavior I was trying to stop. This made me ask, then why use guilt if it doesn't work? The only times I stopped behaviors was when I simply didn't want to do them anymore or changed my thoughts/beliefs about the situation..

Did I Have To Feel Guilt?

Was there some requirement that necessitated me feeling guilty? I couldn't think of one valid reason to feel guilt if it didn't work! If it wasn't functioning as a tool for change, then why use it? Why feel miserable if it serves no purpose?

Did Guilt Show My Caring To Others?

Unfortunately, sometimes yes. We belong to a culture that believes guilty feelings are a sign of a caring and thoughtful person. But most of the time it was difficult knowing what others were thinking. Most times they could care less what I was feeling. The ones who wanted to try and manipulate me to do what they wanted, liked the fact that I felt guilt. The ones who loved me, and wanted me to be happy tried to reassure me that there was no reason to feel bad. I decided I didn't want to spend time with people that supported me feeling guilty.

Take Your Own Walk

Don't trust my answers for your life. Take your own walk and examine your experiences. Put your guilt through the wringer. See what answers you find using the same questions I did. Look at the long-term results. The answers you reveal will have a profound effect on how you view guilt. And I suspect, like me, you'll discover just how useless the emotion of guilt really is.

next: Interview On Acceptance

APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, November 25). Does Guilt Work?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 13 from

Last Updated: August 6, 2014

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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