Is Guilt Your Friend Or Foe?

“Throwing guilt under the bus because it’s on overdrive is like never using your brakes because they squeak.” ~KW

It’s true that some people suffer a kind of needless guilt, that their conscience is hypersensitive, pricking and poking when there’s really nothing to poke and prick about.

Some voices in the personal development community would therefore have us banish guilt once and for all as an antiquated Victorian overkill that needs to be permanently removed for the sake of our mental health.

Mine is a different voice.

Instead of banishing guilt from our lives altogether, fix the God-given mechanism that’s meant to guide, warn, direct, inspire and correct our missteps as we clumsily make our way through life.

An Internal Warning Light System

Guilt is a tool or mechanism that a well-working conscience uses to communicate to the heart. When we don’t live up to our values, our hearts are pricked with guilt, shame and regret. But we’re not supposed to stay there, letting the guilt settle in and take up residency. It’s a warning signal in the dark of our choices that sends the message to course correct.

The point of guilt isn’t to feel bad. The point of guilt is to motivate improvement.

If we make the proper corrections, we sail on, the wind comfortably filling our sails once again, the guilt little more than a memory. When we fail to listen, however, we’re supposed to feel bad about it … until we come around to the course correction.

The body is not supposed to stop registering pain when the tack is still in the foot—even if it ruins your day. Pain is a signal that nudges, then urges, then slaps us upside the head and screams, “Get the stupid tack out!” That’s pretty much how guilt is supposed to work as well. Guilt is to character what pain is to the physical body.

When Guilt is Leaking from a Broken Conscience

Of course some people feel guilt for all kinds of reasons completely unrelated to questions of morality and character. If that’s the case, the system needs an overhaul. But don’t overcompensate by tossing the baby out with the dirty bathwater.

To snuff out the signal because we don’t like the way it feels or because it sounds off at wrong or inopportune times is to snuff out a conscience as well, something like demolishing the car because the oil light stays on too long and makes you feel bad.

Course Corrections

So the next time the pangs of guilt start to pinch a little, take a look inside, at your behavior, at how you treated a family member, at the values you may have compromised to get something you wanted or at a lie told to gain advantage over another.

Then make a course correction or two and begin to enjoy the happier emotional waters the course correction creates. Remember, once the signal has been responded to, no need to keep sounding the alarm.

If, on the other hand, there is nothing of a moral stumble causing the guilt (perhaps you ate a few cookies too many, is all), your guilt is likely working too hard. In that case, give it a rest and take the baby out of the bath before throwing out the dirty bathwater.