The title of this article may seem a bit strange. Guilt is not an enjoyable experience—how can it be beneficial? The answer is that guilt can help prevent us from engaging in behaviors that may harm others and ourselves. While this is true, it is overly simplistic when left as an argument by itself. It can be maintained that it is better to do the right thing not in order to avoid guilt, but to do what is right.
Guilt does more than motivate us to avoid engaging in behavior that will cause us to feel it. Guilt invites self-reflection. This is the greater potential inherent in guilt, but we must be willing to stay with the feeling to benefit from these possibilities.
Don’t Get Rid of Guilt: Work Through It
Different types of guilt may warrant different approaches to working through them. I will discuss three primary types of guilt: neurotic guilt, reality-based guilt, and existential guilt.
With existential guilt, I will also identify three different subtypes. When we work through guilt instead of trying to quickly overcome or get rid of it, the result is often wisdom and growth. When we try to quickly rid ourselves of guilt, we often are doomed to repeat similar behaviors.
When people express feelings of guilt and regret, a common response from others is to encourage them to “let it go” or forgive themselves, especially when it appears the person is being overly hard on themselves. This is well-intended advice, but it can fall short.
The Three Types of Guilt
Neurotic guilt is based on something for which one ought not feel guilt. It is out of proportion to the event that caused it. It can even be valuable to understand where neurotic guilt is coming from in order to identify its deeper roots. For example, neurotic guilt may be rooted in experiences of being inappropriately shamed for something as a child. Identifying the cause, instead of just working to quickly alleviate the guilt, can help resolve the neurotic guilt at its source.
Actual guilt, or reality-based guilt, may seem easier to understand. If we act in a selfish manner that causes harm to a friend or loved one, it is good to feel guilt, but still important to avoid quick, simplistic resolutions. If we were to quickly apologize and forgive ourselves, we may miss opportunities for deeper understanding and wisdom that may emerge from reflecting upon our guilt.
Rollo May believed that self-awareness is the foundation of ethical behavior. When we accept the invitation to reflection that accompanies actual guilt, we may come to understand ourselves better so that we can make informed changes in our life.
Rollo May believed that self-awareness is the foundation of ethical behavior. When we accept the invitation to reflection that accompanies actual guilt, we may come to understand ourselves better so we can make informed changes in our life.
A third type of guilt, existential guilt, is often unavoidable. It is rooted in the human condition. Rollo May identified three primary types of existential guilt, each connected with different aspects or modes of our existence: personal, interpersonal/social, and the physical world.
The Three Subtypes of Existential Guilt
Existential guilt at the personal level is about not living up to our potential. If we accept the invitation to reflect on this form of existential guilt, we may come to recognize where we are not seeking to fulfill our potential and identify what is blocking us from actualizing it.
At the interpersonal level, existential guilt can easily be confused with actual guilt. However, existential guilt at the social level is focused more on one’s responsibility to others and society in general as opposed to specific interpersonal transgressions (May, 1958). When one is aware of injustice in the world around them but does not do anything to make a difference, they may feel an existential guilt. It is not that they have engaged in a behavior that has caused harm, but rather they feel guilty for participating in a system or culture that is causing harm without advocating for change. This guilt is rooted in an understanding that we are social creatures and have a responsibility to others with whom we share this world.
May believed that existential guilt at the physical world level is the most pervasive and complex. This is rooted in our connection to the physical world and our environment. As an example, neglect of the physical environment can result in existential guilt. The guilt may not be from doing intentional harm, but it may be caused by one’s inaction or neglect.
These different types of existential guilt recognize that we are both independent beings and social beings at the same time. When we deny our nature as individuals or social beings, this results in guilt. It is impossible to actualize all our potentials, speak to every social injustice, and address every environmental injustice. As a result, we are bound to having some degree of existential guilt.
For those who are deeply aware of existential guilt, this can feel overwhelming. The lesson from existential guilt is not that we should try to do everything, but that we should strive for finding a balance in which we engage in our own personal development and responsibility to the social and physical world while accepting that we cannot do it all.
Guilt is a call to reflection. It invites us to reflect upon our lives and the way we are living. It invites us to consider whether we are living responsibly and living in accordance with our values. When we accept the invitation and engage in this reflection, we are often able to achieve deeper wisdom. We become able to live congruently with our values.
For Victor Frankl, this reflection is the key to happiness. He believed that happiness becomes more elusive when we seek it directly and that it is best achieved through living life well. When we live life well and in accordance with our values and principles, happiness ensues.
If you are struggling with feelings of guilt, warranted or unwarranted, a licensed and compassionate therapist may help you work through them.
- Frankl, V. (1984). Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Touchstone.
- May, R. (1958). Contributions of existential psychotherapy. In Existence. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc.
- May, R. (1975). The courage to create. New York, NY: Norton.
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