When is guilt bad; when is guilt good?  When is it a normal, healthy emotion and when is it harmful?  Most people try to answer these questions the wrong way.  And they forgot to consider how bullies try to use our guilt to harass and abuse us.  Most people analyze whether the guilt we feel in a particular situation is right, is what we should feel because we’re behaving or behaved badly, is normal because the average person should or would feel guilty for acting the same way.

But let’s stand the approach on its head.  Let’s not judge the actions and situation by some external standards of right or wrong.  Instead, let’s look at guilt as if it’s a force for motivation, as if the purpose of guilt is to get us to do differently or better, as if we keep replaying the guilty feelings until we act to make things better, until we live up to our own standards.

When I think this way, the picture is much clearer.

  • For most people, “bad, unhealthy, useless” guilt then becomes a major form of “self-bullying” that’s a waste of time.  We’re not proud of ourselves.  We run ourselves down, beat ourselves up, feel ashamed and harm ourselves.  Or we cover up the guilt, declare ourselves innocent and blame the other person.  We become righteous and indignant; it’s not our fault.  Or we wallow publicly in guilt, looking for sympathy.  But we don’t do better.  We keep repeating the actions we feel guilty about.  Wallowing in guilt, perfectionism and continued self-bullying increases stress and leads to loss of confidence, low self-esteem and depression.  And, eventually, we may even get a thrill from self flagellation.  We’ll resent people who take the fun out of our misery.
  • “Good, healthy, effective” guilt leads us to do something productive.  We stop procrastinating, get over addictions, act better toward people, set boundaries we need, live up to our highest standards and make amends.  Some examples: we apologize for being nasty to our kids, spouse or partner and don’t do it again; we do the difficult chores at home or work that we’ve been avoiding; we give more generously to those in need; we pay our share; we return the stuff we’ve borrowed; we stop making sarcastic and catty remarks about our friends’ clothes, habits children and struggles to lose weight.  We know many specific situations in our own lives.
  • What if people don’t feel guilt when they should?  Looking with this perspective, we can see them as not motivated to change and as being aboveboard at it.  I can trust that they don’t have the standards I do.  Good.  Now I know that I have to protect myself against them.  Many bullies act ashamed and contrite.  They promise to change and they bring candy, flowers and sweet words.  I look at the behavior.  If they don’t change, I wish them well in their therapy and rehabilitation, but I won’t go on that roller coaster ride with them.  The pain is too much.  From them, I have to protect the island my kids and I live on.  I vote them off our island, no matter what the relationship and their suffering, promises and claims that I owe them so much that I should allow them to abuse and brutalize me.
  • How do bullies use our guilt?  Predators are always on the attack.  They try to get us to question the purity of our motives and past behavior.  Stealth bullies are especially effective at this.  Once we start questioning ourselves, our imperfections, self-doubt, negative self-talk, self-hatred and self-loathing will keep us stuck; weak and easy prey.  We won’t have the strength, courage and perseverance to stop them.  Before bullies would admit they need to change, they want us to waste our time trying to be perfect according to their standards.
  • Guilt is over-rated as a motivating force.  When we’re kids, we all try guilt to get us to do what we don’t want to.  Then we become afraid that if we stop whipping ourselves, we’ll become lazy, immoral and unfeeling slugs and failures.  But as adults, we can transition to motivation strategies that depend on the desire to do what’s good and right, and makes us joyful.

Joining our highest standards to our passion creates a different one of us, gives us a different motivating force and creates a different world for us.  Yes, that’s a big change.  But it’s a change we’ve hungered for.

How different our worlds would be if we stood up for ourselves, our families and what’s right because we are passionate in service to our best and strongest, not ashamed and guilty of what we did wrong?

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Ben Leichtling, Ph.D. is author of the books and CDs “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks,” “Parenting Bully-Proof Kids” and “Eliminate the High cost of Low Attitudes.” He is available for coaching, consulting and speaking.  To find practical, real-world tactics to stop bullies and bullying at home, school, work and in relationships, see his web site (http://www.BulliesBeGone.com) and blog (http://www.BulliesBeGoneBlog.com).

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