Is guilt a useful or a useless emotion? There seems to be a strong case for both sides of the argument. On the one hand, guilt, it could be argued, is a useless emotion, to be challenged and alleviated. One thinks of fictional characters portrayed by Woody Allen who are racked with guilt but spend their whole time navel-gazing rather than doing anything to make amends. Or someone who has been in a car accident where they injured or even killed someone, and even though the accident wasn’t their fault they cannot get over the incident and may even suffer from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) as a result. Such cases make one wonder whether guilt is indeed a useless emotion, turning one bad thing (the event one is guilty about) into two bad things(the original one plus feeling bad about it). As therapists or coaches we are tempted to turn to CBT(cognitive-behavioural) methods such as challenging whether the offence was as serious as we imagined (are our negative automatic thoughts supported by the evidence? are we jumping to conclusions?). The responsibility pie is a useful technique, whereby we examine all the people and factors responsible and thereby often realise that we were not as blameworthy as we imagined. In these ways useless guilt can be challenged and alleviated.
On the other hand, it could be argued that guilt is a vital emotion, one that makes separates us from psychopaths and non-human animals. Imagine a society where we avoided thinking about the damage we had done to others, or rationalised it away. We would neither make amends for past harm or resolve to change ourselves. We would, in fact, all be rather like fictional gangster Tony Soprano, who commits murder, adultery and breaks most of the other 10 commandments but sees it all as part of his job and putting bread on the table. Existential therapists argue that existential guilt, the feeling that our whole life is not living up to our standards, can serve as a very useful emotion, one to remind us to take steps to change ourselves and our lives. According to existential therapists, then, the main work to be done when someone complains of feeling guilty is not so much to alleviate the guilt as to find out what the guilt is telling us and to take heed of the guilt. Guilt, according to this view, is a most useful emotion.
These two apparently contradictory views can be reconciled by realising that context is key. The trick is to examine the ideas behind your feelings of guilt, and then to assess whether they are telling you existential messages or are inappropriate feelings which need to be challenged.
For example, consider a woman who feels guilty that she working rather than looking after her young child. The first step is to ask (as CBT asks us to do) – what are the thoughts or images behind this guilt? Suppose it is the notion that a woman’s first duty is to be a mother, an idea she got from her own mother. Then she needs to ask herself – is this a view she actually subscribes to , or is this a prejudice she is parroting to herself from her mother? There is no simple answer to this question. Though the CBT therapist might urge her to lessen her guilt by arguing that such notions are old-fashioned, the existential therapist would ask her to decide the issue for heself based on her own values and on the facts. For example, is it the case that children flourish best when looked after by their mother? Or does it depend on the age of the child and the quality of care, whoever is giving it? To determine the answers to this question would resolve research – the guilt tells us that something of value is at stake, but it doesn’t tell us whether our suspicions are correct. Then again even if if it was proven that children were in general somewhat happier when they were looked after by their mother, it would not necessarily follow that she should take heed of her guilt. She needs to make a value judgement about whether this statistical finding carries more weight than the certainty that she would jeopardise her career for a number of years.
On balance, it would seem that these arguments suggest that the existence of guilt is more useful than useless. Guilt always gives us useful information about our values, and it often points us in a valued direction. However, as with other emotions, guilt can go wrong in terms of its degree or its its appropriateness. The answer is always to look at the context of the guilt, to identify and then assess the ideas which are fuelling the guilt, and then to take appropriate action – which will either be making amends or changing our life in the direction implied by the guilt, or else using the responsibility pie or other CBT techniques to remove it.