Wednesday, January 16th, 2019

R Relationships by Dr. Bill Austin
The Value of Guilt


Often in life we make bad choices that can be self-destructive and harmful. The reason may not be because we are bad people, but rather that we are trying to meet powerful needs or role expectations. It is then that we can find ourselves compromising our principles or crossing our moral and ethical boundaries.

When we do stray from what we believe is right, it is often in a subtle way. Sometimes it can seem like we are in an unconscious mode where we are unaware of the consequences of our actions and the damage we are doing to others, ourselves, and our relationships.

What causes us to go into this unconscious mode? We become unconscious when we deny that what we are doing is wrong, when we justify in order to make the wrong right, or when we minimize the effect of the wrong.

Another piece of this problem is that there are strong internal forces that may overpower our sense of rightness and cause us to walk down a road we never dreamed we would find ourselves. These internal forces may come from a suppressed side of ourselves that we have not examined.

Simply feeling
is not enough,

Instead of diffusing the situation by examining this side of ourselves, we often try to suppress it further, which in turn makes the forces even stronger. As a result, we may find these elements pressuring us to make choices that violate who we want to be, what we want to stand for, and how we wish to relate to others.

A frightening problem in our society is that instead of correcting the wrongs, we adjust to them. This is when a healthy dose of guilt is necessary.

The value of guilt can be illustrated by two images. The first one is an alarm clock. The value of guilt is when it is functions as a ringing alarm clock: Alert! Warning! Danger! The alarm clock hopefully awakens our sense of right and wrong, of higher values, or a higher self. It can awaken us out of an unconscious state so that we become aware of the destructive course we have taken.

Simply feeling guilty is not enough, however. Healthy guilt takes another step, illustrated by the next image: a hot stove.

We could say that the purpose of guilt is much like that of pain. If we put our hand on a hot stove, pain tells us to remove it immediately or we will have worse pain. Pain tells us to make a quick adjustment; guilt can do the same. Guilt warns us that we need to make a correction. In this way, guilt is like a defender of our goodness by helping us get back to our healthy expectations, values, and principles.

Dr. William E. Austin is a licensed psychotherapist and holds a Doctor of Divinity degree. He is a therapist with Tidewater Pastoral Counseling Services . He is well known for his warmth and sense of humor. His book, Creating Our Safe Place - Articles on Healthy Relationships, can be purchased through

Tidewater Pastoral Counseling: 623-2700