Healthy Guilt?

By: PaxCare Staff

tsk tsk

Many parents worry about causing their children to experience undue guilt. As Catholics we get attacked a lot for being a guilt-mongering people. Most of it is undeserved, but the bad press is enough to make many parents more than a little concerned about the potential for their discipline to be the source of unhealthy guilt in their children.

Healthy v. Unhealthy Guilt.

It might be helpful to start by looking at guilt in general: is guilt ever useful? And if so, what separates healthy guilt from unhealthy guilt (i.e., scrupulosity)?  The truth is, there is such a thing as healthy guilt, and healthy guilt can serve a positive role in leading a healthy life. Guilt belongs to the family of reactions (like pain, fear and anger) that we might call “warning emotions.” That is, these feelings tell us that something is amiss and that corrective actions may need to be taken if we want to be healthy and happy. Just like healthy pain lets us tend to a physical injury, and healthy fear alerts us to a potential threat to our safety, and healthy anger alerts us to a possible injustice, healthy guilt lets us know about threats to our integrity.  Research consistently shows that self-esteem and a positive sense of self-worth is dependent upon “being true to ourselves.” In other words, we can only truly feel good about ourselves if we perceive that we are living up to the values we claim to hold. That is, if we maintain our integrity. Healthy guilt protects our integrity, and by extension, our identity strength and self-esteem.

3 Functions of Healthy Guilt

Guilt can be thought of as healthy if it does three things.

  • First, if it alerts you to potential threats to your integrity (and, by extension, your self-esteem).
  • Second, and even more importantly, guilt is healthy if it motivates you to take some concrete actions to address the offense to your integrity (and, by extension, your self-esteem). The function of guilt isn’t really to make you feel bad. Its function is to help you do something to fix a problem that poses a threat to your healthy functioning.
  • Third, to be healthy, guilt should decrease as you work to resolve the threat to your integrity.

Guilt vs. Toxic Shame

By contrast guilt becomes unhealthy if…

  • it is free-floating and not tied to specific offenses to your integrity.
  • it doesn’t motivate you to take any action. Unhealthy guilt is just happy to make you feel awful about yourself without giving you anything to do about it.
  • it doesn’t decrease once you’ve addressed the perceived offense.

A better label for unhealthy guilt is “scrupulosity.” Interestingly, both psychology and religion view scrupulosity as problematic. For the psychologist, scrupulosity can represent a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder in which moral contamination replaces the more common germophobia associated with OCD. Likewise, for the religious person, scrupulosity is actually (and, perhaps, ironically) a sin, in that it separates us from an experience of God’s love and mercy. (by the way, that is the definition of “sin”—i.e., “a privation of the good” or to put it another way, sin is settling for less than what God wants to give you.)

Parenting and Guilt

When parents use gentle methods of correction that teach the child what to do instead of punitive methods that simply communicate disapproval, the child develops a healthy sense of guilt; a, gentle, internal voice that says to the child, “Hey! You messed up. But here’s what you can do to make it right again.” That voice is actually a good one to have in our heads, because it allows us to turn failure into a learning experience.  By contrast, when parents use more punitive methods that simple communicate displeasure at the child’s actions, the voice in the child’s head is completely different. This inner voice sounds more like, “Shame on you! You messed up again! Can’t you do anything right?”

“Guilt” is What You Make It.

So, in conclusion.

  • Healthy guilt is good because it facilitates integrity, which is an essential component of self-esteem.
  • Unhealthy guilt is actually scrupulosity, which is viewed as a disorder by both clinicians and authentically religious persons.
  • And finally, parenting methods are tools that can be wielded to different effects by the people wielding them. Just like hammers can be used to either build homes or bludgeon people, parenting styles can either affirm and build up, or cause hurt and harm.

The more we are committed to helping working for our children’s good and teaching them the way they should go (instead of yelling at and punishing them for going down the wrong road) the less we have to worry about creating unhealthy guilt in our kids.

Comments are closed.