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More PsychNotes: Emotions

March 3, 2016       
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Importance of Guilt vs. Irrational Guilt
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

As a psychologist and writer I sometimes fail to be aware of who my audience is. I think this is a problem of psychological writing in general (especially on the internet). For instance, I might be writing with a particular group of people in mind without recognizing the impact on others who might be reading the information. This is a particular problem with guilt, blame, and responsibility.

Due to this tendency in psychological writing, many people believe that psychology exonerates people from wrong-doing: “It's not my fault—I have an addiction!” or “I can't change my life because I have depression.” This is furthest from the truth. Psychological principles have always incorporated the importance of taking responsibility for your life.

However, sometimes I am writing about irrational guilt and blame and I make statements to the effect of: “You don't need to feel guilty—you haven't done anything wrong.” Irrational guilt is when someone with an anxiety or depressive disorder takes excessive responsibility for everything that occurs. They might feel guilty for saying “No, I don't have the time to do that” to someone's request. Or, someone blames herself for having been raped or molested. In those situations, therapy may focus on getting rid of the irrational emotion.

However, guilt is generally an important emotion. When a person feels that twinge of guilt in their gut it means they need to evaluate their behavior. They need to assess whether the behavior was appropriate, and if not, how it can be corrected.

This process may be a little more difficult for people with depression or anxiety because they need to also determine whether the emotion of guilt is excessive and irrational. Although a person may not be to blame for the things that have happened to them or for having mental illness, it is still necessary to take responsibility for how they choose to live their lives. First, though, they may need to get rid of the guilt and self-blame so as to see more clearly how to create a better life.

But, for most people, that icky feeling of guilt is meant to help us function better as a cohesive community. It helps us to be aware of our behavior, to take responsibility for mistakes and to make improvements. It allows us to be more empathetic and compassionate which leads to better relationships and cooperation.

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