On the long, complex spectrum of human emotions, people usually think of guilty feelings as skewing to the negative side, maybe nestled somewhere between greed and jealousy. But, although it isn’t the most pleasant feeling in the world, it turns out that guilt has a good side.
Are guilty feelings a waste of your emotional time?
“Guilt can be an adaptive emotion and is associated with reparative behaviours — it’s actually good to experience guilt for many reasons,” says Dr. Jessica Tracy, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and author of Take Pride: Why the Deadliest Sin Holds the Secret to Human Success. “Guilt helps you cope with things that go wrong and allows you to think about something you did — or didn’t do — and decide whether it’s something you can change, fix or do differently next time.”
There is a positive side to guilt.
A study published in Cognition & Emotion found that people who are prone to feeling guilty also reported that they were good at empathizing and had strong relationship skills.
Of course, there’s also a downside.
That’s when guilt slips into shame. “Shame is harder to separate from who you are as a person,” says Dr. Tracy. “While guilt is a feeling that can motivate you to do things better, shame can be crippling and lead to poor self-esteem.” For instance, let’s say you forgot to call your mom; you might feel guilty and resolve to call her first thing tomorrow, which is a healthy response.
Shame, on the other hand, takes it to a whole other level. “It’s not just a sense of ‘Oh, I forgot to call my mom,’” says Dr. Tracy. “Instead, it becomes ‘I’m a bad daughter. I’m lazy, and I’m not good enough.’ It’s a much more problematic emotion.” (Shame and guilt can also be linked to stress and this bad habit.)
People who feel shame also tend to feel powerless to change it and may need the help of a professional to overcome those feelings. That said, an excess of guilt isn’t ideal either and can cause an unnecessary burden of stress and anxiety.
Why we feel guilt during the holidays.
Of course, there’s no other time of year when that’s more likely to happen than over the holidays. (Do you have holiday burnout? Check out these signs.) “It’s a time of year when people — women, in particular – often put a lot of pressure on themselves,” says Dr. Nancy Hurst, a registered psychologist in Edmonton. “They sometimes take on extra duties and get caught up in trying to make everything perfect. Then they often feel guilty because they have created unrealistic expectations for themselves or are trying too hard to please others at their own expense.”
The key is to not let guilt get in the way of having a good time because ’tis the season after all. Here are 5 ways to have a happier Christmas than you did last year.