Since this is an epidemic in the church as well, I thought I would post this as I know many people mix these up all the time. No one in the church ever talks about healthy guilt.
Unresolved feelings of guilt are a common component of depression and low self-esteem. In order to sort through such nagging feelings, it can help to divide guilt into two different types.
The first type is the kind we feel when we've done something we believe to be wrong. We know we did it and we know it violates our personal moral or ethical code. Let's call this a "healthy guilt." It's the feeling that's appropriate and fitting when we've done something wrong.
The second type is the kind of guilt we feel when we really haven't done anything wrong, but feel "as if" we have. Let's call this a "neurotic guilt." It's misplaced and doesn't belong. It's the result of a distortion of responsibility, and it serves no useful or healthy purpose.
Two ways to process guilt
The process for handling or resolving the guilt is different depending on which guilt it is. Healthy guilt needs to be accepted and worked through. Neurotic guilt needs to be challenged and rejected.
We can process healthy guilt by saying, "Although this guilt doesn't taste so good, it's basically good for me so I need to accept it, swallow it, digest it, learn from it and move on." This process teaches us how to take responsibility for mistakes, feel badly about it for a reasonable period of time, make amends if possible, forgive ourselves and get back in the game.
We need to process neurotic guilt very differently. This process says, "This guilt does not belong here, it should not be accepted into the system and it needs to be returned to sender." This process requires that we examine our behavior from an adult, rational perspective and that we not take responsibility for things which were not under our control. The goal is to identify guilt that entered inappropriately and deport it back to where it belongs.
Resolve guilt by processing it correctly
Problems occur when we try to process guilt using the wrong system. If you've messed up and you know it but you're trying to handle it by rejecting the guilt, you might have trouble attaining a sense of peace. A healthy part of you knows you should accept the guilt and allow it to work its way through you, but another part of you is fighting against this. Maybe this is what they mean by "swallow your pride."
On the other hand, if you're blaming yourself for something that was simply not your responsibility, you're trying to ingest a neurotic guilt that really ought to be rejected. A healthy part of you senses that this guilt should not be taken in, but you're having trouble spitting it out.
A reasonable dose of healthy guilt over a reasonable period of time won't hurt you and can even teach you humility, which in turn builds wisdom and personal strength. Holding on to neurotic guilt can cause you to walk with your head hanging low, shrinking from living life freely and fully. If the guilt has your name on it, claim it. If not, let it go.
Art Frenz, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in private practice. He can be contacted at Psychological Fitness, 1200 Monroe St., Endicott, NY, 13760.