None of us like to feel guilty, and certainly some of us feel it when we shouldn’t . . . But it’s not entirely without its purpose. Imagine a world in which no one felt guilty about anything.”
In those three sentences, journalist and author Maria Shriver offers this important but often neglected insight about guilt: it’s a vital component of a healthy conscience and a sign of spiritual sensitivity. Though guilt is most often thought of as a negative and destructive emotion, it does have positive and constructive aspects. Ben Franklin was aware of this when he said that “a good conscience is a continual Christmas.” Following are seven situations when guilt is good.
1 Guilt is good when it moves us to accept responsibility for our actions
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of The Book of Jewish Values, wrote, “Someone who can’t acknowledge responsibility and guilt cannot and will not change. And just as a disease cannot be treated until it is first diagnosed, a sin or an evil cannot be corrected until it is acknowledged and admitted.” And he cites as an example an acquaintance of his who seldom acknowledges his errors. Whenever a problem comes up in his life, this person blames others and refuses to identify or accept his own complicity in the matter.
Telushkin says, “I once told him that of all the people I knew, he was the one for whom I felt least optimistic about the future. Since he was never to blame for any of the bad things that happened to him, there was nothing he could do to improve his increasingly unhappy life.”
2 Guilt is good when it prods us to apologize
When we’ve wronged someone, the critical first step in repairing the relationship is a heart-felt apology. This was something Jesse Jackson did when the news media reported an ethnic slur he’d made about Jews.
Aware that his language had caused harm, he promptly offered this public apology: “If, in my low moments, in word, deed or attitude, through some error of temper, taste or tone, I have caused anyone discomfort, created pain or revived someone’s fears, that was not my truest self. If there were occasions when my grape turned into a raisin and my joy bell lost its resonance, please forgive me. Charge it to my head and not to my heart. My head—so limited in its finitude; my heart, which is boundless in its love for the human family. I am not a perfect servant. I am a public servant doing my best against the odds. As I develop and serve, be patient: God is not finished with me yet.”
3 Guilt is good when it develops humility
Two of the hardest words to say are “I’m sorry.” There are three main reasons why people find it difficult to apologize. The first is pride. Apologizing means admitting fault. Pride prevents us from simply saying, “I was wrong. I messed up. I shouldn’t have done or said that.” Second, rather than apologize, it’s often easier to blame someone or something for our action. We justify ourselves by shifting the responsibility elsewhere. Third is embarrassment. We feel foolish, and it’s easier to pretend it didn’t happen or that no one noticed. Yet when we’ve spoken or acted in ways that have created a wound, the path to healing that relationship emerges from the humility to apologize. That’s why humility is a high virtue in the Bible. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2). “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom” (James 3:13). “What does the LORD require of you? / To act justly and to love mercy / and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
4 Guilt is good when it prompts us to make amends
The word amend originates in Latin, and it means “to correct, to rectify, to free from fault.” When we’ve blundered, causing another person discomfort, the remedy is to “amend” or correct the situation as quickly and completely as possible. And it’s the nudge of guilt that sends us in the direction of rectifying. Etiquette authority Letitia Baldrige told of a time when a friend failed to pick her up at an airport. She waited an hour before arranging her own transportation. Baldrige explained what transpired after the man realized his mistake: “(1) he sent me a long message of apology; (2) he sent me a dozen long-stemmed roses; (3) he took me to lunch the next time he was back in town; and (4) he ordered a car to pick me up at my office and take me back again after lunch.” Of course, the apology was accepted, any lingering pains were healed, and their friendship remained unaffected.
5 Guilt is good when it heals hurt and anger
When the sense of remorse moves us to act in remedial ways, the hurt and anger experienced by the wounded party is softened and even healed. When Stacey Hylen checked into the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Tucson, Arizona, she requested an important wake-up call. That routine request was overlooked, and when she woke up late, she was furious. Understandably, she called the front desk to complain. However, within moments her frustrations eased and her anger was transformed because the hotel agent promptly apologized and offered to send a complimentary breakfast to Stacey’s room. She declined breakfast, but when she returned to her room later that day, she found fresh strawberries, candy, dried fruit, and a handwritten note of apology. The end result was that instead of an angry rating on the hotel’s Web site, she highly complimented the facility with their “Five-Star Customer Service” rating.
6 Guilt is good when it causes us to seek God’s forgiveness
Recognizing that something isn’t right about our behavior and seeking forgiveness is hard. This very problem appears in the Bible. When Adam and Eve made a wrong choice and were confronted by God, they refused to accept responsibility. Adam blamed Eve, saying, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” Similarly, Eve blamed the snake: “The serpent deceived me, and I ate” (Genesis 3:12, 13). Later when God demanded to know what happened to Abel, whom Cain had killed in a jealous rage, Cain deflected the issue arrogantly saying: “I don’t know. . . . Am I my brother’s
keeper?” (Genesis 4:9) However, another person in the Bible recognized his fault and confessed it. This happened when the prophet Nathan criticized King David for engaging in a variety of wrongful deeds. David’s response was the opposite of that of Adam, Eve, and Cain. He accepted responsibility and confessed, “I have sinned against the LORD” (2 Samuel 12:13) Because of his immediate confession, Nathan declared that David’s punishment would be reduced.
7 Guilt is good when it helps us see a character defect
It’s easy to be blind to our own faults and shortcomings. Often it’s a sense of guilt that opens our eyes to see a character defect. A man recently wrote to an advice columnist explaining, “I had a girlfriend years ago that I loved but did not treat well. I learned that my time in this world is short, and I thought we might meet by chance and I could beg forgiveness. That seems unlikely now.” He wondered how he could try to make this right, asking whether he should call the woman or write her a letter and have it mailed after his death. The advice columnist offered him this wisdom: “Follow your heart now. Please pick up the phone or write a letter. Be completely transparent and honest. I assure you, you will feel better and she will feel touched. I hope she takes the opportunity to forgive you so that you can both close the loop and have a peaceful resolution to this relationship.”
When guilt appears in our lives, it’s a signal to take a second look at what’s going on. Recognizing and responding to the source of guilt with wisdom, maturity, and compassion liberates us to live in healthy relationships with ourselves and others.