What's the point of guilt?

I don’t know why I feel guilty all the time. I feel guilty that I am not being a good parent, that I am not doing enough at work, about how I have treated people in the past and many other things. I even feel guilty about feeling guilty. Does that make sense?
And I haven’t even done anything really bad. Sure I was a jerk when I was younger but I did not steal, cheat or hurt people (maybe emotionally). And right now, I’m a pretty good guy.
Do other animals feel guilt? I am not a dog owner, but I have heard that they feel guilt. Can that be true? What about apes?
If we are the only the species that feel guilt, it must have some purpose.
I can’t help feeling that my life would be better if I didn’t feel guilty.
Does anyone else feel the same as me?

Sounds like your issue is with forgiveness maybe. If you can only forgive others their shortcomings, but not yourself, that’s surely only half the lessons of forgiveness, don’t you think?

Learn to forgive yourself for being grievously flawed.

Y’know, just like all the rest of us!

Ya. I do have trouble forgiving others. So I guess I have trouble forgiving myself.

First of all, I think it’s worth noting how astonishing good most people are at avoiding guilt - at rationalizing their own terrible behavior to justify it and to continue to believe that they are good people. So for many people, I don’t think guilt is debilitating.

But if you want a possible evolutionary explanation for guilt: it’s important for us to appear to others to be good citizens, to be socially cooperative. So if we do something wrong, it’s a good idea to appear contrite, and we’re better at a appearing a certain way if we really believe something ourselves, if we’re not acting. So our brains make us really feel bad, to ensure that we present a convincing appearance of contrition to others. As with most evolutionary psychology, however, it’s difficult to really do hard science to prove a plausible-sounding idea like this.

And then it’s worth noting that even if this evolutionary explanation is more-or-less correct, it may not function well in everyone. It may be that there’s some socially optimal balance between feeling guilty vs being able to rationalize our own bad behavior; but that in some people one or other tendency is overactive. People at one extreme may feel debilitating guilt, and at the other may show psychopathic traits.

“Guilt” can refer to being guilty or to feeling guilty. They’re two different things. Ideally, they’re correlated, so that when you do something wrong (or fail to do something you should have), you feel guilty about it, and this motivates you to try to make restitution and/or to do better in the future.

But it’s certainly possible to be guilty without feeling guilty, whether you’re a psychopathic criminal or just an ordinary person with moral blind spots or (as Riemann said) the ability to rationalize your own terrible behavior. And it’s also certainly possible to feel guilty without being guilty (or way out of proportion to your actual failings).

I think there exists a sort of moral Dunning-Krueger effect when it comes to guilt. (The actual Dunning-Krueger effect is “a cognitive bias whereby people who are incompetent at something are unable to recognize their own incompetence. And not only do they fail to recognize their incompetence, they’re also likely to feel confident that they actually are competent.”) What I mean is that, in my experience, the most saintly, good, moral people seem to not be the ones who think most highly of themselves. Rather, they seem to be aware of how far they fall short of what they could and maybe should be (sort of like how a knowledgeable person realizes how much there is that they don’t know).

But that doesn’t mean they’re eaten up by guilt over how short they fall, because they’re able to be gentle with themselves as well as others, to forgive themselves (and accept that they are forgiven, by other people and/or by God).

blood63 - You mention that you’re a parent. While I’m not a parent, I appreciate how difficult it is.

I can understand the feeling of thinking you’re not a good enough parent, especially when there’s a lot of contradictory information out there on how to raise children, not to mention a lot of people (parents or not) who are very judgmental about how others care for their children.

I can understand that you can feel guilt if you think of things (parenting-related or otherwise) that you could’ve done better in your life. There are things I still feel guilt over. I try to think of what I’ve learned from my past mistakes, and what I can do better in the future.

A limited degree of guilt confers a dimension of humanity. Excessive guilt is pathological.

Drawing a line between the two isn’t easy.

I have heard it said by supposedly learned experts that dogs don’t actually feel guilt but merely are aware they did something their pack leader won’t like and fear punishment. As someone who’s had multiple dogs I think that’s hogwash - the beasts may not be able to resist the temptation to steal your food or otherwise transgress, but either they feel guilty for misbehaving or are capable of an extraordinary acting job that simulates guilt. :slight_smile:

*thinking of a cocker spaniel that slunk off to hide after somehow managing to open the refrigerator door and pull out a half-eaten turkey carcass, leaving our other dog holding the bag, as it were.

Have you looked into “self compassion” as a concept? There are therapists and self help books specializing in this.

A book i found useful, as well as short, practical and concise, is this one. It has a chapter on gult. https://www.amazon.com/Emotional-First-Aid-Rejection-Everyday/dp/0142181072

I feel guilty sometimes too. I feel guilty that I’m disappointing my family and friends; that I could be doing more to help people; that I could be helping in church more than I have been. I feel guilty that I’m on disability. I feel guilty that my mother was recently diagnosed with diabetes. And I won’t even get into the times when I feel guilty about something that happened years ago, even minor stuff like not giving somebody a few bucks when they really needed it (even if they didn’t ask me).

It’s part of life.

I figured out long ago that guilt and forgiveness is for suckers who have had that shit beaten into them by their religious upbringing. Hey, put some money in the plate and you’ll be forgiven! Expunge your guilt: write us a check! No thanks.

It is certainly true, and important to note, that guilt can be all too easily (and is, all too often) used to exploit and manipulate people. Religious people and organizations do this, yes, but they’re not the only ones.

On the other hand, “guilt and forgiveness is for suckers” strikes me as something a psychopath might say. Not that I’m accusing you of being one.

Thanks everyone. Wonderful. I’m putting that book in my Amazon cart!!

That’s good, 'cause then I’d have to go on a killing spree.

Seriously, I don’t see the point of most guilt (I’m assuming we’re talking about guilt over petty transgressions, not the guilt associated with running over a child). I see even less point in forgiveness. The forgiven doesn’t give a rat’s ass about it, and the more heinous the act, the less likely the perp is going to care about your state of mind. Hate 'em till they die seems more productive.

I suggest you take a look at

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck

It addresses intelligently all the issues you raised, including feeling guilty about feeling guilty. NYT #1 bestseller.

“In life, we have a limited amount of fucks to give. So you must choose your fucks wisely.”

The evolutionary / biological explanation I’ve always heard is that it is related to the idea of social transgression and ostracism. When we are threatened or in danger, the mind produces a sensation of anguish while the body releases adrenaline and cortisol. This is very useful when you are in a threatening situation (eg being chased by an animal).

Humans evolved to live in groups and cooperate. For a primitive human, being expelled from the group was practically a death sentence. Our brains became attuned to looking for signals that other people disliked us. If we did something that transgressed the group and put us in danger of ostracism, our brains reacted as if we were in physical danger (because living in a group of pissed off cavemen who hate your guts was a pretty dangerous situation). So we had a biological / psychological response to our own vulnerability and the idea that we were in danger from our own family or tribe-mates. In the best case scenario, we modify our behavior to bring us back into the group’s acceptance.

So far, so good… But this is where things go haywire for modern humans. For a caveman, the ostracism triggers were pretty simple… You stole Grog’s meat, or you burned down your hut, or you let Throg get eaten by a lion because you weren’t paying attention. Modern humans are at very little risk of these kinds of catastrophes but our social stresses have multiplied. It started with religion and social norms… (eg. You violated a cultural taboo, transgressed the wishes of your feudal master, did something someone else arbitrarily decided was a sin). And in the modern world it’s practically catastrophic (eg Did you follow the wrong sports team, did you breast feed in public, did you like the latest Star Wars movie). For every single stupid, shitty moment of your life, you will find someone, somewhere who is absolutely enraged by whatever you did or didn’t do. This is why the internet is a terrible idea.

But that’s probably not what you’re on about. How does this idea actually apply to people like you and me?

When I was growing up, I lived in a household and a society that was extremely judgmental. I felt like everything I did was “wrong.” My parents had high expectations that I never seemed to meet and I was constantly harassed and ridiculed at school. My exposure to religion was damned near catastrophic, because the only thing I ever learned was that I could be damned to hell for practically any “sin” and so I was in perpetual terror. This whole experience left me a big ball of shame and guilt. In caveman terms, my brain was interpreting harassment, failure, and transgressions as danger of ostracism, and it released the accompanying adrenaline and cortisol.

By the time I grew up, I was perpetually ashamed of everything I ever did. I would sit awake at night feeling ashamed of the time I pushed my brother when I was six years old, or the time I asked my parents for an expensive video game. I was ashamed of not being good at sports, of watching the wrong TV shows, of reading comic books, and so on. But most of all, I was ashamed of not being “good enough.” I thought I should be better, stronger, faster, more confident, more attractive, harder working, blah blah blah.

Every so often I would try to punish myself by destroying all my toys and comics and video games. It was like, I’m going to get rid of all these things and then from this point onwards I’ll only be mature and competent and sexy and awesome. (I mean, on TV a person can permanently change their personality and all they need is a montage). Or I would cut myself with knives in the belief that I deserved to be punished for all the bad things I’d done and - more generally - punished for just being a loser in general.

The idea was that if I stopped doing whatever you
Edit: Shit, I hit the submit button hang on…

… Part Two…

… that if I stopped doing X Arbitrary Bad Thing, then people would like me and I would finally like myself. It did not work.

So, how do I fix it?

There’s a couple of strategies that worked for me, but the bottom line is this: It never really goes away. The feeling can become quieter, more manageable, and less intense, but it never goes away completely. Having said that, some things that helped include:

  1. Getting psychiatric help. I got cognitive therapy and started taking antidepressants. When I first started on the antidepressants, it was like flipping a light switch. There was a tremendous difference in my mood and personality.

  2. Stay busy with meaningful work. If you are focused on whatever work you have to do, you can’t be bothered by feeling regret over some other stupid thing. Exercise is great for this. As your body improves you will feel better about yourself, and if your muscles are fatigued you will have less energy to devote to stressing out about things. A fatigued person will sleep better at night.

  3. Become socially and physically secure. Cut out toxic people and relationships. Get a job where you feel safe and cared for. If you are hanging out with bullies and stuck with an asshole boss, your body is still releasing injections of cortisol that constantly tell you that you are not safe. Cut your social ties with jerks and stop interacting with toxic or narcissistic relatives. Admittedly, this might be the hardest step because it requires financial independence, so it may have to be a long-term goal.

  4. Let time and experience work for you. The bottom line is that some of the things I stressed about in the past are absolutely trivial by comparison to some of the absolute fuck-ups I’ve witnessed or perpetrated. With experience comes perspective, and things that previously seemed like a HUGE DEAL gradually diminish as your perspective changes.

  5. Identify the people who actually matter. As I got older, I increasingly became aware that what other people think means absolutely fuck-all to me and has no impact on my life. The only people whose opinion actually matters are my spouse and my immediate supervisor at work. People whose opinions kinda sorta matter include my relatives and coworkers. Pretty much everyone else can eat shit.

Like I said, the feelings never completely go away. I still have days where I wonder about my choices in life and feel regret that I missed an opportunity or had a big setback. But it does get easier and the voice in my head gets quieter over time.

For what it’s worth, some people draw what they think is an important distinction between guilt and shame. For instance, see The Difference Between Shame and Guilt, and Why It Matters and The Difference Between Guilt and Shame.