How Guilt Can Hurt You – And How It Can Help

How Guilt Can Hurt You – And How It Can Help

Do you find yourself looking around and feeling moral outrage at what you see around you? Does every day bring a new reason to be upset and angry? If so, it may not be (entirely) the fault of those around you. It might be your own feelings of guilt.

Recently on St. Joseph’s Workshop, Fr. Matthew Spencer shared a study that linked moral outrage to feelings of guilt – and offered a healthier way to deal with guilt in our lives:

“Just yesterday there was a study published that said moral outrage itself is self-serving. When you get outraged morally (not all the time, but often) it is about you more than it is about the issue. And that’s what this particular study was looking at. In fact, what they were exploring was why it is that people get morally outraged. And very often it happens because people feel guilty. They feel guilty about themselves and that translates into moral outrage.

A quote from the study:

Feelings of guilt are a direct threat to ones sense that they are a moral person, and accordingly research on guilt finds that this emotion elicits strategies aimed at alleviating guilt that do not always involve undoing ones actions.

In other words, feelings of guilt threaten you and make you think you’re not a moral or upright person. Therefore, you need to compensate for it so you get outraged by something else that dispels your own guilty feelings. And there you go, you’ve solved your moral problems, now you feel fine about yourself.

This is fascinating to me, because we’ve all seen that pattern before, but now psychologists are actually identifying the thought process behind this.

In this season of Lent, guilt is a big struggle that people have. You feel guilty about a lot of things: you feel guilty about your own sin, you feel guilty about how bad of a mom or how bad of a dad you’ve sometimes been, how bad of a spouse you’ve been, how much you’ve let down Jesus in your life. And we all struggle with guilt.

And to a certain extent I think there is a healthy aspect to guilt. It’s OK to feel bad about something that we did wrong. I mean, if we never felt guilty about anything we’d never have any qualms about sinning. So feeling guilty is OK, feeling guilty is healthy – it motivates you. It can be the greatest motivator sometimes.

My perspective is that your guilt this Lenten season should make you think about your moral standing as a person. And that’s OK. But don’t act out on it in a way that’s not going to help you become a better person.

When you’re facing your own guilt, when you’re looking at your own sins, when you’re looking at those mistakes you’ve made, and you’re starting to wonder: Am I OK morally? Am I on good terms with God? Rather than trying to cover up those feelings of guilt, rather than trying to avoid addressing the sin in your life and block it out by becoming outraged about something else and focusing on other people’s sins, maybe the invitation is to say, ‘I need to look at that guilt in my life and maybe it’s OK that I feel guilty about that, and maybe I can actually fix it directly rather than getting outraged about something else and taking it out on a different part of my life. Maybe I can heal the root cause of that problem – which is sin.’

That’s the distinction. If you’re feeling guilty about something you had no control over, that’s not guilt. Guilt is the authentic experience of realizing that what you did is wrong and you need to be healed from it.

And thankfully there is healing for you in the confessional. There is healing with God’s grace. So don’t let that guilt sit around, but instead fly to the loving, merciful embrace of the Father.”

Listen to more from Fr. Matthew Spencer, OSJ below:

St. Joseph’s Workshop with Fr. Matthew airs weekdays from 9:00 – 10:00 a.m. Pacific on Immaculate Heart Radio.