Psychologist logo
Understanding Your 7 Emotions book cover
Brain, Emotion, Social and behavioural

Understanding guilt: The useless emotion?

Dr Lawrence Howells, Clinical Psychologist and author of Understanding Your 7 Emotions, with an adapted chapter from the book.

10 November 2022

According to Charles Darwin, emotions – like other characteristics – evolved to help us respond to our environments. For some emotions the link between a cause, the emotional response and the outcome is clear. Fear, for example, is a response to threat that enables us to fight or flee. For other emotions, it's more difficult to trace these links. What is the function of sadness, for example, or shame? Guilt has perhaps the worst reputation of all, being described as the 'useless emotion' by people ranging from musicians (New Order in their 2005 track) to therapists (e.g. Jeffrey Nevid writing for Psychology Today in March 2017).

To me, guilt – like all other human emotions – serves important functions in our lives and in our wider society, and is usually helpful. This can help us understand the times when guilt isn't so useful, and what's going on when guilt might be considered to be pathological or contributing to a mental health problem. I understand mental health problems not as disorders or illnesses, but as difficulties responding to emotions in helpful ways. Three strands make up my model: understanding emotions, helpful emotion responses and emotional traps. The three fit together to form a coherent approach to support all of us, whether we're functioning fairly well or struggling to the degree that we meet criteria for some kind of mental health disorder.

Guilt and morality

Think about a time you felt guilty. What made you feel this way? What impact did it have on you? How did you respond? Probably, your description of the cause starts with an 'I….'. This is because guilt is linked not with an external event, but with our own behaviour, a sense we've done something we shouldn't, or not done something we should've. This makes guilt more complicated than some other emotions, because we have to have a sense of morality, a set of standards or values we believe we should live up to. We feel guilty when we sense a shortfall between our own behaviour and these standards or values.

Guilt is an energising emotion: it drives us to act. The most effective way to reduce guilt is to undo our behaviour, make amends, atone or apologise.

What impact did guilt have on you? Each emotion has an impact on five different areas of our lives: feelings, bodily responses, facial expression, thoughts and behaviours. Guilt tends to be less intense than other emotions, unpleasant, but quite frequent and with a tendency to linger. We may give a great deal of thought to what we did (or didn't do) and what to do about it. These thoughts can go round and round in our minds, distracting us from other things and making it difficult to sleep or to relax. The crowd of thoughts and ideas, and the unpleasant feeling, make us want to withdraw from others, and to refrain from sharing our wrongdoing.

If we behave in line with society's standards and values we will avoid the unpleasant feeling of guilt and have good relationships with others, which leads to a mostly positive and caring society. If we do act in ways not in line with standards and morals, the unpleasant feeling of guilt is most effectively reduced by making amends. Owning up, apologising, and rectifying the wrong in some way is the behaviour most likely to result in a reduction in guilt and is also helpful in repairing relationships and maintaining trust and positivity between people. For these reasons, guilt is sometimes called a social emotion or a moral emotion. Perhaps guilt isn't such a useless emotion after all…

Responding to guilt

Remember that guilt is the result of two related processes: the standards we hold for ourselves and our interpretation of our behaviour against these standards. First, we need to ensure we are fair and accurate in both the standards and values we are holding ourselves to, and our interpretation of whether or not we have upheld them. To do this, we need to tolerate the emotion to allow an exploration of it and often a discussion of these events with others.

If we are confident in our evaluation of the situation, the next stage is to do something about it. Guilt is an energising emotion: it drives us to act. The most effective way to reduce guilt is to undo our behaviour, make amends, atone or apologise. This might be difficult in the short term but usually leads to reductions in guilt in the long term, along with improved relationships with those around us. Can you think of examples of where guilt has driven this kind of behaviour for you?

The guilt trap

Like all emotions, guilt is predominantly helpful, but there are times when it has a negative impact on our lives. These problems result not from a fundamentally different or disordered experience of emotion, but from difficulties in responding to emotions. In my approach, problems responding to emotions are labelled traps – particular responses to emotions maintain intense emotional experiences that get in the way of life. We get stuck in the guilt trap when our responses to guilt lead us to withdraw excessively and keep striving to make amends for things without stopping to evaluate our levels of responsibility. This leads to over-estimations of responsibility, excessive guilt (which is included in the DSM 5 criteria for depression), excessive withdrawal and excessive attempts to make amends.

Given what we know about guilt, this all stems from problems in one of two areas: extreme, restrictive standards or a misinterpretation of particular situations. I'll focus on the first of these. Standards that are too extreme or restrictive lead to excessive levels of responsibility in lots of different situations. This example highlights the problem:

Eileen worked part time and had a young family. She was busy all the time, taking on extra responsibilities at work, and looking after her children and the house. She rarely stopped, rarely went out and despite her partner's encouragement to sit down and relax, continued to be busy from morning until night. She'd been finding things increasingly difficult since the birth of her second child and her GP had signed her off work with 'depression'. Eileen felt so guilty that she wasn't working, she'd been doing more around the house, cleaning and even starting to redecorate. Eileen said that she 'just had to be doing something', and that when she tried to sit down and relax, she felt guilty and had lots of thoughts about all of the things that needed doing and said to herself "it's easier just to get on with it".

Eileen was working extremely hard all the time. She was so busy that it was having a negative impact on her, her ability to work and her relationships with her partner and children. She was keeping busy to avoid the guilt that she felt when she relaxed. This implies that relaxing or having time for herself is somehow not in line with the standards and values that Eileen has for herself. She may have a standard like 'I must always be productive' or 'If something needs doing then I should do it'. These are examples of standards that are too extreme and give her too much responsibility. Eileen can either work really hard to try to reach them, making herself exhausted and preventing her from enjoying her life, or she can try to relax and then find herself dwelling on all the things that she 'should' be doing. Both of these options result in Eileen being distant and disconnected from those around her and have a negative impact on her life.

Questioning standards

The standards we hold are often ideas we live by, but we have never put into words. Are you becoming clearer about some of your own? Identifying and putting into the words the most problematic ones can help you start to think about how useful they are.

Think about those aspects of your life you find difficult and write down what you think your standards or values are for yourself in these areas. These kinds of statements will often start 'I must…', 'I should…', or 'I must not…'

Now have a go at pushing what you have written to make it more extreme and see if you still agree with it. If you have 'I should always try my best', would you also agree with 'Only 100% effort is enough'? If you have 'I should be a good parent', would you also agree with 'My children should never be unhappy'? If you have 'I should help those around me', would you also agree with 'I must always put others before me'?

Turn your standards upside down and see if you still agree, even as they get more extreme. 'I should always do well' might become 'I must never make any mistakes'. 'I should always help others' might become 'I must never let anybody down or upset people'.

Think about how you behave. Do you behave 'as if' a more extreme version of your standard is true, even if, when you write it down, you know it's too much? 'I know I can't be the best at everything I do, but I behave as if I should be'. 'I know everybody won't always like me, but I act as if I'm trying to be liked by everybody'.

Once you have identified your extreme standards, you can start to explore them. Think about where they come from. Are there others in your life who have these standards, or are there others who hold you to these extremes? Guilt-tripping in which other people make us feel as though we ought to live up to some standard can be a powerful way of making us feel we ought to do things, even if, when we stand back from it, this is beyond our responsibility. Think about how well these standards work and what alternative, less extreme ones might be. The important changes to make are those that give you a little less responsibility, that accept some aspects of life are outside your control. The new standards should give you a little more flexibility and take the pressure off.

The last stage of the process is to link these new ideas back to what you'll do and how you behave if you acted in line with them. Initially, it is likely that you will find an increase in feelings of guilt, because you are not following your usual standards, but, over time, these feelings should reduce and as you start to feel more comfortable with new, more flexible expectations.

This is what Eileen did:

Eileen and her partner talked one evening about how busy she was and why she continued to do so much. Eileen found herself talking about what life was like when she was growing up and how her mother was so busy all of the time. She could see that her standards had come from these early experiences, and she remembered feeling sad that she did not get to do more fun things with her mum. Eileen then spoke to her mum about these memories, a discussion which helped Eileen to question these standards about always being busy and to adjust them so that they took account of the importance of doing things she enjoyed, particularly spending time with her children. Initially, she had to be quite strict with herself and she set some time aside each evening to spend with her children and her partner and not to do anything that 'had to be done'. Over time, she became more comfortable with leaving things undone and prioritising other things as her standards became more flexible and she was able to return to work on the basis that she'd only work the hours she was paid for and not take on additional responsibility.

Learn the skills

Understanding emotions, including guilt, as universal human phenomena that are usually useful and helpful, can help all of us better understand our emotions and bring about improvements in our lives. My hope is that more people might learn the skills they need to help themselves and others to lead happier, more fulfilling lives, and to reduce the reliance on models of mental health diagnosis.

This is an adapted extract from Howells, L. (2021). Understanding Your 7 Emotions: CBT for Everyday Emotions and Common Mental Health Problems, published with kind permission of Routledge.