I’m here to tell you in no uncertain terms that guilt is destructive. Period. You should do everything possible not to feel guilt and you should not be using it to motivate people to do what you feel they should do.
Feeling guilty feels good. We feel like we’re being responsible and doing something about the issue. Look! I care! I have a conscience! If I didn’t care I wouldn’t feel guilty. Often, we associate guilt with being religious. We feel like we’re making G-d happy because we’re guilty. This idea of using guilt as a barometer to measure that I’m a decent person and even feeling holy when I feel guilt is so deeply engrained in so many that it’s one of those ideas I always receive backlash on. I remember discussing guilt with a group and a psychologist was in company. He argued the benefits of guilt and how, because of guilt, people motivate themselves not to do things that they shouldn’t.
So I’m here to tell you in no uncertain terms that guilt is destructive. Period. You should do everything possible not to feel guilt and you should not be using it to motivate people to do what you feel they should do. Yes, you’re hearing this from a Rabbi. I do my utmost not to say things that will make people feel guilty. That is not the way to get people to do the right thing. It is actually destructive to the very good you’re trying to achieve.
Let me first define how I’m using the word guilt so we understand what we’re talking about. Guilt is the feeling that I am bad because I did or did not do something I believe I should or should not have done. Guilt is defining who I am by the actions I do, the words I speak and the thoughts I think. The key issue with guilt is that it defines a person by their outside, what they do, instead of by their inside, who they are. Our negative actions do not make us bad people. We are all G-dly souls with the spark of the Divine. Improper behavior and mistakes do not define who I am, who you are, or who she is. There is being and then there is doing. We shouldn’t confuse the two. The key here is NOT to personalize. You shouldn’t personalize the behavior of yourself or others. That means our actions are separate from who we are. I am NOT what I do. When we internalize the difference between who we are and what we do, we realize we can change our behavior but the core of who we are never needs to change. So maybe some remorse, but no guilt.
I am not saying we shouldn’t examine our behavior. We should look within and we need to do so honestly and bravely. Looking within ourselves honestly and bravely means doing so without judgment and condemnation but rather with a focus on how to improve for the future. It takes time to get comfortable doing this. There is a part of guilt that we’re attracted to which is why it’s so popular. When I’m feeling guilty, I’m feeling myself, I’m feeling alive, I’m keeping the focus on me. This is the perverted pleasure of guilt and this is why personal blame is far more popular than personal responsibility. Honest and brave introspection doesn’t make it about me.
We should periodically reflect on our behavior and actions, but we need to do so without judgment. Honest assessment without accusation leads to change. Evaluation with harsh judgment leads to guilt. Guilt is not only unproductive, it’s harmful. At best, it only motivates us to do better in the short term. The guilt that arises from harsh self-talk and harsh self-judgment often leads to depression. It steals our joy. Thinking we can never change or we’re a terrible person isn’t going to lead to anything productive. Being hard on ourselves and beating ourselves up over mistakes and bad actions isn’t good.
There is another serious consequence of judgmental introspection and negative self-talk that we don’t usually consider. The way we speak to ourselves is actually the way we speak to others. If our self-talk is full of judgment, that’s what we’re conveying to others. You may think you’re covering up your judgment with some smart wording. What’s actually happening is your judgment is felt very strongly no matter how well you think you’re hiding it. I have found that the only people who walks out feeling there’s no judgment are the judgmental person themselves.
Here’s why using guilt on another is never helpful. When we guilt others into doing something, at best we get an immediate result, as the person wants to limit the pain of the guilt and shame. What’s really happening is you teaching this person that you are a source of pain to them. They begin learning to hide from you for their own safety. Greater distance is created between the two of you only lessening your influence on them. The moment you shame someone, you push them away. Do you really want to push these people away from you?
Relationships can only blossom when the other person feels safe. In a healthy relationship, the other person knows you may disagree with their action and they also know that despite that you sincerely care about them. Any action or behavior doesn’t change that. Your judgment of them do to an action of behavior will change that. Guilt is a common method parents and spouses use to motivate their kids to do what they want. “You mean that after all I’ve done for you, you won’t do this for me?” Instead of inspiring proper behavior on its own merit, we make them feel that their no good because they won’t do what we want. Once again, we use guilt because it’s the shorter longer way. It gets quick results but is always destructive to the overall relationships.
Just for today, pay attention to the way you are talking to yourself. Do you like what you hear? Do you need to work on the way you’re evaluating yourself? Do you need to work on how you speak to yourself? We also need to remember, the way we are speaking to ourselves is the way we speak to others. Is that what you really want other people to hear?
So become a source of motivation, to both yourself and to others by using less guilt and more inspiration.