Is it okay to feel guilty when you think you've done something wrong?
The answer to this question largely depends on the sort of guilt you are experiencing. Some guilt can be rational while some can be pointless and destructive. If you are experiencing the latter kind of guilt, then you probably don't even realize you are being irrational. You may simply think that you should feel guilty, that you deserve to feel guilty, and, as a result, continue to torment yourself over the situation.
Guilt can be one of the most difficult emotions to work through for many. Like a virus, it can eat at you until you begin to feel invisible and unworthy. You feel disgust for yourself, not because of what you did (temporary), but because of who you are (permanent). It can whisper lies to your souls and teach you to hide, so instead of running towards yourself and your potential, you run away. You disconnect with yourself and others rather than connecting and working through the problem, which only perpetuates the cycle and this process can suck the life out of you.
When you feel guilty, you perceive yourself to have violated a moral principle that you hold. Moreover, the objects of guilt, what you feel guilty about, are always internalized moral principles. By "internalized" I mean principles you think you ought to or should obey. These principles are often internalized as a result of socialization or the way we were raised. These innate beliefs are instilled within us through childhood and tend to linger through adulthood, even though they often go unnoticed.
One type of irrational guilt has to do with the way you have internalized your moral principles.
You may hold them as absolutes, as always binding without exception, and thus make them too demanding. For example, you may think that you should never lie, never harm anyone, and always keep your promises. These are all fine but the problem comes in when you cast your moral principles as such absolutes, (black and white, all good or all bad), then you set yourself up for needless guilt by demanding what is impossible. There is no such thing as perfect!
Quite obviously, some forms of lying or deceit are morally blameworthy but not all of them are.
“There are almost always exceptional circumstances but this is just the point: All moral principles, at least all of them capable of guiding human action, are admit of exceptions.”
So, if you think of your action-guiding moral principles as being unconditional, you have made them too demanding. Inevitably, these principles will come into conflict with one another, meaning that you cannot rationally expect to satisfy all of them all of the time. In such cases, it is a matter of weighing and balancing one principle over another.
For example, you may have been raised to believe that you should never lie and we all know that lying is less than complimentary, but sometimes I white lie is okay in order to spare someone’s feelings when I asked for your opinion.
So should you feel guilty if you break one of your moral principles for a morally overriding reason?
The answer is no!
We must remember that there is a difference between the emotion of regret and that of guilt. You can regret having to lie to spare someone serious harm. Of course, it would have been better if you didn't have to lie. But this doesn't mean you need to feel guilty.
Guilty feelings are always gnawing and uncomfortable. Indeed, they can be quite stressful however, putting yourself through such pain when you have done your best to deal with a situation of moral conflict is not a legitimate occasion to upset yourself.
Sometimes the moral principles that you have internalized are themselves self-defeating and unreasonable. These are "moral" only in the sense that you believe that they're moral. Thus, you may think that you have a moral duty to worry about things and feel guilty when you shouldn’t.
But even if your moral principles are rational, you can still experience irrational guilt;
and this can be true even when you truly have violated one of those principles. Such guilt can be the self-abasing type. That is, you tell yourself that you are a bad person because you did something wrong. "What a worthless person I am. How could I have gone back on my word like that! I am nothing." Here, the guilt is sustained by self-damnation. Thus, you are demoralized by your perceived moral infraction and think yourself worthless when that certainly isn’t the case.
This is an extremely destructive and self-defeating form of guilt. For if you tell yourself that you are worthless, you have decreed once and for all that you are incapable of making constructive changes in the future. So, in debasing yourself in this way, you can experience ongoing guilt without recognizing any possibility of acting better in the future.
If you do something that you think is wrong, it is your action that is wrong, NOT YOU. We tend to forget that what you did is NOT THE SAME as who you are.
Do your mistakes define you? Only if you allow them to. You are distinct from your action and therefore it is a fallacy to infer YOUR unworthiness from the unworthiness of your action. Otherwise we'd all be bad, as we all have done bad things.
So guilt that rejects the doer rather than the deed is irrational, hence unacceptable guilt.
While once you perceive that you have done something wrong, guilt can be rational when it moves you to learn from your misdeed and to make changes in the future. However, it is not rational when you tell yourself that you deserve hell and damnation and as a result make yourself miserable or depressed.
Not uncommonly, people feel guilty about violating a moral principle that, on careful inspection, they really wouldn't even accept.
For example, a client of mine once told me that a woman should always obey the man.
"The man should wear the pants," she declared. I asked her why she believed this, and she told me that men are better decision-makers than women. I then asked her if there was anything she was better at than her husband, and she told me that she knew more about real estate and financial matters. So, I challenged her to rethink her moral principle. I asked, "If the person best at making decisions should be the decision-maker, and you are best at real estate and financial decisions, then who should be making those decisions?" My client was subsequently able to see the contradiction in believing a principle she had been long ago socialized to accept. "I should be making those decisions!" she exclaimed. Woman too can "wear the pants"!
Accordingly, here are some questions you can ask yourself to see if your guilt is legitimate:
-Have you allowed for reasonable exceptions to your moral principle? Remember, you may have been caught in a case of moral conflict and simply had to make a decision.
-Have you avoided ruminating (recurring negative thoughts about the situation playing over and over) about whether or not you did the right thing in a situation of moral conflict, keep yourself from going over and over your decision destructively in your head? It is more than self-defeating and unnecessary. What’s done is done. Learn from it and move on.
-Is the principle you think you have violated really rational? For example, you may be telling yourself that you have a duty to worry or that you must always be perfect.
-Did you really violate a moral principle that you accept? Remember, the principle in question may be one you were brought up to believe but is it self-defeating and not consistent with your other beliefs?
While some occasional guilty feelings are normal and can be a catalyst to making constructive changes, excessive and chronic guilt can unnecessarily destroy the quality of your life.