The secret nasty reward of feeling guilty

What on earth can be rewarding about feeling guilty? You must be asking yourself. Guilt is a terrible feeling. How can it possibly be rewarding?

Once upon a time I used to feel guilty most of the time. Guilty for spending too much time at work. Guilty for being with my kids instead of working. Guilty for spending time with the kids while wishing I could be at work, and guilty for working while missing my kids. There was no escape.

Guilt is a funny emotion. On the one hand, it makes you feel bad about yourself. It saps your energy and spoils your fun by filling your brain with repeated, useless thoughts about how you shouldn’t be doing what you are doing, or how terrible you are for having made that awful mistake a few days ago. It’s not a fun feeling to have around.

But it also has a nasty little psychological reward to offer. It goes like this:

I have done, or am still doing, something that is against my values – something which is WRONG. Therefore I am a BAD PERSON.

But I’m feeling guilty about it. Extremely guilty. So guilty that I can’t enjoy my life. I can’t even sleep properly at night. I feel sooo very guilty.

But hey, suffering so much makes me a better person after all! Bad, awful people – they don’t feel guilty! They have no conscience. When they do something bad, they don’t care. But me – I feel guilty about things I do. This makes me a GOOD PERSON after all!

So guilt rewards us by allowing us to feel OK about ourselves, while we continue to do things that are against our values.

Back to my own example – I could be at work but still feel I was a good mum because I was suffering with guilt for not being with my kids. And I could spend time with my kids while feeling I was a good enough employee – after all, I felt really guilty about having completed only half of my office ‘to do’ list.

A little bit of guilt makes us better people – it motivates us to do the right thing. But guilt that stays for a long time without us taking steps towards resolving the guilt-inducing issue is usually a sign that we are getting some psychological reward out of it.

Thankfully, once you recognise how guilt works, it suddenly loses its charm. Next time your guilt overstays its welcome, ask yourself what you are getting out of maintaining is. In which way does it allow you to think of yourself as a better person than you really are? Once you expose the hidden reward that guilt gives you, you can’t enjoy it anymore. Then think of the price that guilt makes you pay – your happiness and the happiness of people around you.  Is it worth it? If your answer is no, you can either take action to improve the situation, or just accept that life isn’t perfect and you are fallible like everyone else. And by doing this you can break yourself free.   

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