Guilt is the feeling that results when you tell yourself that you have done something wrong.
Healthy guilt is the feeling that occurs when you have actually done something wrong — such as deliberately harming someone. This is an important feeling, which results from having developed a conscience — a loving adult self who is concerned with your highest good and the highest good of all. People who never developed a conscience and feel no guilt or remorse over harming others are called sociopaths. These people have no loving adult self and can wreak havoc — stealing, raping, killing — without ever feeling badly about it.
Healthy guilt results in taking responsibility for our choices and being accountable for our actions. When we have not behaved in a way that is in our highest good and the highest good of all, our loving adult self will feel remorse and take over, doing whatever we have to do to remedy the situation.
Unhealthy guilt results from telling yourself that you have done something wrong when you haven’t actually done something wrong. For example, if you decide to do something for yourself with no intent to harm anyone, and someone gets upset with you for doing what you want instead of doing what he or she wants, what do you tell yourself? Here are some inner statements that can lead to unhealthy guilt:
“It’s my fault that he is feeling angry.”
“I should have done what she wanted instead of what I wanted. I have caused her to feel hurt.”
“I’m being selfish in doing what I want to do.”
“It’s my duty to put myself aside and do what others want me to do.”
“If he gets angry with me, then I must have done something wrong.”
“If she is hurt, then I must have done something wrong.”
Many of us have been trained to believe that we are responsible for others’ feelings so that when others are angry or hurt, it is our fault. But unless you deliberately intended to harm someone, his or her feelings are not your responsibility. Others get hurt when they take your behavior personally, and they get angry when they make you responsible for their feelings. But this does not mean that you are responsible for their feelings.
You are responsible for your own intent. When you intend to harm someone, then you are responsible for the results of that. But when you just want to take care of yourself with no intent to harm anyone — such as want some time alone when your partner wants to spend time with you — then you are not responsible for your partner’s upset.
Unhealthy guilt comes from telling yourself a lie. When the wounded, programmed critical part of you takes over and tells you that doing what you want with no intent to harm anyone is wrong, that is when you will feel unhealthy guilt. This critical part of you wants to control how others feel about you, and so tells you the lie that you are responsible for others’ feelings.
Unhealthy guilt also arises when someone blames you for his or her feelings, and you take on the blame. Many people have learned to blame others for their feelings rather than take responsibility for their own feelings. When you accept this blame, it is because you want to believe that you can control others’ feelings. You will feel unhealthy guilt when you accept blame for others’ feelings.
Healthy guilt is an important feeling and leads to positive action, but unhealthy guilt is a waste of energy.