The article is developed in partnership with BetterHelp.
Guilt is often discussed with one of two views: guilt is a positive and even necessary emotion that helps build community and keeps society afloat, or guilt is a toxic experience that negatively impacts anyone who is under its sway. Both sides of this argument have some merit. Guilt can live in healthy bodies, and it can live in unhealthy bodies. What is the answer to the age-old question, then? Can you be both guilty and healthy?
What Is Guilt?
Guilt is considered a feeling or experience characterized by a sensation of “not-right-ness,” or the feeling of having transgressed a rule or boundary. Guilt can be a split-second experience, or it can be a chronic one. It is typically within these identifiers that the health of guilt is determined.
Guilt Versus Shame: An Age-Old Debate
Are guilt and shame one and the same? Is one better than the other? These may be common questions, but the answer can be somewhat controversial. For some, guilt is healthy, while shame is not. For others, both are indicators of societal conditioning, rather than an indicator of good, bad, or neutral mental health. In still other instances, both are seen as potentially hazardous. Although there is still some contention on the matter, guilt is typically identified as a response to internal beliefs or moral standing, while shame is usually an externally-placed feeling that indicates a belief in not having lived up to one’s potential or expectations.
When Guilt and Health Are At Odds
Guilt and health are considered at odds primarily when guilt is experienced on an ongoing basis. Chronic guilt has been linked to increases in the risk of developing depression and other mood disorders—disorders that can have deleterious effects on virtually all facets of an individual’s life. Guilt and health can coexist, but chronic guilt and forced guilt are both at odds with personal and mental health, and can lead to the onset of additional mental health symptoms and harm.
Chronic guilt is problematic precisely because it does not lead to a resolution, but instead leads to increased feelings of shame and disquiet. A single spike of guilt might prompt an individual to rectify a mistake. An unending spiral of guilt rarely prompts this same action, which can lead to self-hatred or self-contempt. When guilt is utilized as a tool for growth and alignment with one’s values, it can be healthy, but when it is used as a form of self-punishment or constant reprisal, it becomes an unhealthy fixation and can bleed over into other mental health concerns.
When Guilt and Health Align
There are some instances in which guilt is a healthy feeling, or a feeling that can actually aid mental health. These instances typically involve some action tied to the sensation of guilt. If you cheat on a test, for instance, guilt may drive you to acknowledge your wrongdoing to the individual or organization giving the test and do what is necessary to make amends. If you are unfaithful to a partner, guilt may push you to acknowledge your indiscretion and either end the relationship, or request forgiveness and relationship help. In both of these cases, guilt can actually aid health, by encouraging you to behave in a way that aligns with your internal moral compass—or the societal moral compass you have adopted. To learn more about the positives and negatives of guilt, check out some of the articles on BetterHelp, available here.