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Thursday, July 18, 2024

Feeling guilty can be good for you

So a little guilt can be a good thing after all. So writes Jeffrey Zaslow in Thursday's Wall Street Journal.

So a little guilt can be a good thing after all. So writes Jeffrey Zaslow in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal.

Researchers have found, he reveals, that “those prone to guilty feelings tend to be more empathetic, have healthier relationships, and are better at resolving conflicts.”

So guilt isn’t so useless _ as we’d been told by pop psychologists for decades _ after all.

Guilt is different from shame, Zaslow points out. One expert says that those who feel “they are a bad person” are more likely to be “depressed and self-focused, to blame others for their problems and to lash out with impulsive aggression.” Oh, and, “Women are more likely than men to wrestle with guilt and shame.” (Gee, do ya think?)

Zaslow maintains that in some ways we are a more guilt-prone society than ever. But here he discusses something I’ve concretely observed _ too often we feel guilty about the wrong things, or things we can’t personally control, i.e., whether our kids have enough of the latest “stuff,” or global warming.

It seems to me that we ask ourselves, “Oh, how could I not have ordered Xbox 360 in time for my son’s birthday!” and “Am I recycling enough?,” not “Am I treating this person right?” or perhaps, “Am I too often concentrating on procuring my own ‘happiness’ _ at the expense of others?”

I’m as guilty of all this as anyone. (Well, OK, not the recycling part _ I’d feel guilty if I didn’t admit that.)

And, unfortunately, it’s still generally the anti-guilt view the parenting experts would have up pass onto our kids. It’s no wonder that parenting gurus tell us we are NOT to make a child feel bad _ because only his “behavior” is bad. (As if in that case the child is just a computer running the wrong software or something.) And so one parenting Web site tells moms and dads that even if they know their child is lying, they shouldn’t accuse their little guy of wrongdoing. Instead, they should talk with him about how “special” the truth is.

(In contrast, I don’t feel one bit guilty about making my kids feel guilty about something they should feel guilty about. I’d feel guilty if I didn’t.)

It’s just not fun to hold ourselves accountable for personal moral choices and dealing well with those directly involved in our lives. That’s the kind of guilt I’m convinced we are too good at avoiding. It’s easier to focus on feeling guilty over things like our government’s slow response to Katrina victims.

Even when we do feel guilt over the right things, it’s worth asking ourselves whether it’s for the right reason. The book “The Cry of the Soul: How Our Emotions Reveal Our Deepest Questions About God,” by Dan Allender and Tremper Longman, makes the profound point that sometimes we feel “guilt” when all we are really experiencing is pride. In other words, we may rightly think to ourselves, “Gee, I treated that person unkindly.” But do we really feel bad about what we’ve done _ or are we mainly concerned about whether that person thinks well of us?


In any event, the good news to be culled from the Zaslow piece is that more folks may be willing to at least reconsider whether guilt at some level can be useful. For decades we were told by pop psychology that guilt was counterproductive, or at least a waste of energy. (I mean, if we did “mess up,” it was really just because we were victims of something or someone in our past anyway.)

Instead, as Zaslow point out, it turns out that guilt may be a pretty good motivator. Maybe we are even willing to consider that being able to rightly sense it may develop our humanity, not minimize it. Some folks, it seems, are ready to accept that guilt, rightly understood and embraced, can be a pretty productive emotion.

So we may be getting back on the right track when it comes to re-embracing guilt. And it turns out that that’s nothing to feel guilty about.

(Betsy Hart is the author of “It Takes a Parent: How the Culture of Pushover Parenting is Hurting Our Kids — and What to Do About It.” She can be reached at or