Did you know guilt is not listed as one of the main human emotions from a neurological standpoint? What is it about then and how does it work? Is guilt a useful tool for affecting change? Dallas Whole Life Counseling founder and licensed counselor, James Robbins, takes a moment to explains what’s really behind guilt.
Does guilt work? The short answer is No.
Guilt, whether you point it at yourself or at someone else, is simply not an effective strategy for a couple of reasons.
First, people try to use guilt as a kind of self-leverage. They try to use guilt to influence some unwanted behavior.
For example, let’s say I’m trying to quit drinking but tonight I go out and I drink 20 shots of tequila. So, I wake up tomorrow and I’m going to be miserably hungover, I’m going to not be feeling well physically, but then if I add guilt to that heap, if I tell myself that I’m a terrible person because of this unwanted habit because I went out to drink, this does not prevent me from acting out the same behavior. In fact, in making myself feel worse I’m putting myself in double jeopardy. So now I have the physical repercussions from a hangover but now I feel emotionally poorly about myself as well. When you add those two factors together I’m more likely to belly up to the bar all the more quickly the next time around.
So, in a nutshell you cannot learn to make yourself feel better by making yourself feel worse through guilt.
Second, guilt is actually a kind of stunt-double emotion. From a neurological perspective, which is to say from your from your brains perspective, there are really only 5 basic human emotions. Those are mad, sad, glad, fear, and disgust. You notice guilt is nowhere on that list but we’ve all experienced guilt we know that guilt is a real feeling so what is that about?
Well Often as therapist s we feel that guilt is really a kind of placeholder for anger. let’s take the drinking example. So, suppose I go out drinking and feel guilty. If I look a little deeper perhaps what I really am is I’m angry. Perhaps I’m angry at loved ones who discourage me from drinking, who are trying to positively influence me to let go of this harmful behavior.
So sometimes if you peel the layers back you realize that guilt really covers over anger. So, in recognizing that guilt is not an effective strategy that can be a helpful way to both let go of the guilt and but to ultimately help to address the behavior the gilt was trying to address in the first place