Feeling Guilty? Good : Believe it or not, guilt does serve a purpose. (Moms have always known this.) It can shift the balance of power in a relationship and it’s one way of atoning for your sins.
So you’re feeling a little pang of guilt for something you did, or said, or bought, or thought. There it is, that creepy emotion that nibbles at your gut, flattens your smile and bombards your brain with conflicting commands to atone and deny.
But before you write off this experience as a distasteful form of self-punishment, keep this in mind: Feeling guilty can be good for you.
In a new study that analyzes years of guilt research, and confirms what mothers have known all along, psychologist Roy F. Baumeister of Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, and colleagues, found that guilt usually benefits someone--sometimes even the guilty party.
“The cultural stereotype is that guilt is a waste or a worthless emotion, that there is no point in feeling guilty,” he says. “But guilt seems to have a purpose.”
For example, he says: “You wouldn’t want to have someone with no sense of guilt as a roommate or spouse or business partner. Guilt seems to benefit relationships. I think the bad reputation comes from the idea that the person feeling guilty doesn’t benefit.”
But that person does, and so does everyone else, he says.
The guilt research is noteworthy in the study of psychology because many theories on emotion suggest that feeling guilty is an individual experience that holds no consequence for others.
“Psychologists have tended to think about guilt in terms of the individual psyche,” Baumeister says. “But the evidence shows guilt depends on the interpersonal context. Guilt tends to be a two-person kind of thing.”
Guilt usually serves three main functions, the researchers found: to maintain relationships, to exert influence and to redistribute emotional stress.
“We found the single biggest cause of guilt people have is not spending enough time with their families or their loved ones,” Baumeister says. “So guilt is a big force to make people pay attention to other people.”
Sherry, a Los Angeles business executive, knows guilt both as an inflicter and a sufferer. She says she often felt resentful years ago when her husband would come home late because of a business meeting. At home all day caring for the couple’s children, she would refuse to cook his dinner if he missed the normal mealtime.
But now that she has her own frenetic career--which often requires those same late-night commitments-- she feels guilty.
“If I have a dinner meeting or have to meet someone for drinks, and he is not invited, I feel guilty,” she says. “The next day, I feel that I have to make nice-nice. I might pick up his laundry or make breakfast for him.”
The special attention lets him know she cares about him, Sherry says, and makes her feel better too.
Guilt also helps people in close relationships control each other’s behavior, Baumeister says. One example is someone who employs the phrase, “If you loved me, you wouldn’t do that.”
“The person with less power can get his or her way by using guilt,” he says. “Guilt is a good strategy for the weaker person in the relationship. Guilt is a power-equalizing strategy.”
Finally, guilt can redistribute emotions.
If you feel guilty over not taking out the garbage, chances are your spouse--who wanted the garbage taken out--will feel better knowing that.
“In this way, emotional equity is restored because bad feelings are restored to the person who caused them,” Baumeister says. “Feeling guilty is a way of showing that one cares.”
The researchers also found evidence that guilt arises from the emotions linked to relationships.
“What are the roots of guilt? The data are converging on two sources. One is empathy. You feel bad when someone else is hurting. That starts early in life. One study showed it starts the second day of life,” he says.
“The other (cause) is anxiety over the loss of a relationship: being rejected or excluded. When you are doing something that may drive someone away, that can produce guilt.”
This anxiety may even be a reason that women feel more guilty over extramarital affairs than men. According to the new book “Heterosexuality,” by Williams Masters, Virginia Johnson and Robert Kolodny, women more often than men break off an extramarital affair because they feel guilty.
“That is because extramarital sex means different things to men and women,” Baumeister says. Women in affairs tend to become involved in deep relationships but men often say their affairs are casual and that they still love their wives and want to remain married, he says.
“Women tend to (have affairs) more as an intimate investment that would threaten their relationship,” he says. “The guilt is based on the wrong to your partner. Having an intimate, ongoing relationship is a threat, so it should provoke more guilt.”
Even though guilt may do good, people don’t like feeling guilty.
“People do try to avoid it,” Baumeister says. “They will rationalize what they did in their own mind or they will try to make it up to the person they wronged.”