Helpful vs. unhelpful guilt: How to tell the difference

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Earned versus Unearned Guilt - MarkEttensohn, Psy.D. Sacramento Therapist

In a previous post discussing the differences between shame and guilt, I defined guilt as the “feeling that we have done, thought, or felt something that is not allowed.” Basically, guilt is what happens when we feel we have done something wrong. In his somewhat provocatively titled book, Your Erroneous Zones, Dr. Wayne Dyer calls guilt a “useless emotion.” He writes, “Guilt means that you use up your present moments being immobilized as a result of past behavior… (pg. 89).” Is it really that simple? Is guilt really a useless emotion?

Yes and no.

Basically, there are two kinds of guilt. One is helpful, the other isn’t.

Earned Guilt: This is the variety of guilt that happens when our actions go against our values. If you believe that it is wrong to steal, then you will probably feel guilty if you take something from the store without paying for it. Your guilt is earned through your actions.

Earned guilt is helpful because it gives us important information. It tells us that we have done something wrong and simultaneously provides motivation to make amends. Earned guilt is part of a healthy adjustment toward the world because it makes us aware that our actions can hurt other people. If it weren’t for earned guilt, many of our behaviors would be sociopathic.

Earned guilt is helpful because it gives us accurate information about our actions. Guilt that does not give us accurate information is called unearned guilt.

Unearned Guilt: This is the kind of guilt that appears when we haven’t actually done anything wrong. It can happen in lots of situations, but many people seem to experience it when they try to set a healthy boundary. For example, we’ve all probably experienced some guilt when we’ve had to say “No” to a friend or family member’s request. Many people feel guilt when they end a romantic relationship in which they were no longer happy.

Often, unearned guilt is based on unconscious beliefs that you may not even realize you have. For example, boundary-setting may make you feel guilty because you have an unconscious belief that you are not entitled to create limits based on your own level of comfort in relationships. Or, you may have the unconscious belief that other people’s needs are more important than your own. Many people unconsciously believe that taking care of themselves mean hurting someone else. The interesting thing about unconscious beliefs is that they don’t usually make logical sense. We often inherit these beliefs in childhood. But while we may grow out of belief in the Tooth Fairy or monsters under the bed, it takes work to bring our unconscious beliefs about relationships to light so that we can examine them as adults. To read more about these kinds of beliefs, see my previous post: Whose values are you living by?

The great thing about being an adult is that we get to make choices for ourselves. We get to decide which values we want to keep and which ones we may have outgrown. We get to choose which feelings we want to respond to and which may be leftovers from a time in our lives when we really were victims of circumstance. We can choose whether or not we want to repeat harmful relationship patterns – both with ourselves and with the people we love. When it comes to guilt, we can decide for ourselves whether it is earned or unearned; whether it is helpful or not. That’s a lot of freedom. It’s also a lot of responsibility.


The worst guilt is to accept an unearned guilt.”

– Ayn Rand

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