Good News About Guilt
During one of our interviews for the biography, Glasser said something that caught my ear. Maybe it was my religious upbringing that acted like Velcro to his comments on guilt, but whatever it was the comments have stuck with me ever since.
One of the girls Glasser worked with at the Ventura School seemed to have a breakthrough, and upon realizing she needed to start being truthful with those trying to help her, began revealing the details of her destructive past. She felt a lot of guilt and hoped to be forgiven.
Recalling this later, Glasser wrote in Reality Therapy (1965) that, “Instead of forgiving her, which used to be my natural impulse before I discovered how wrong it is therapeutically, I told her she was right to feel miserable and probably would continue to feel bad for the next few weeks. In reality therapy,” he continued, “it is important not to minimize guilt when it is deserved.”
From my own upbringing the idea of guilt had been a kind of bad word, something you needed to stay away from, and even to be cleansed from, so considering it from this matter of fact perspective was ear-catching. The following excerpt from Champion of Choice (2014) further explains his perspective.
When I questioned Glasser on that stance, he replied, “Yeh, yeh, I think guilt is a perfectly good emotion. I have nothing against guilt.” He added: “Well, the girls used to ask me this question, ‘Dr. Glasser, will you forgive me for the things I’ve done?’ You know they have a little religious background, some of them, and I said, ‘That’s not up to me to forgive you. I won’t hold what you’ve done against you, but in terms of forgiving that’s something you have to work out with your own self. I can’t forgive you. You did something wrong. You did it. The best way, if you’ve done something wrong, is to stop doing it, and maybe even treat the people you wronged, if you treated people wrong, better. That’s my advice, but that again up to you.’”
But if someone, like a person may come into my private office and say, ‘I feel so guilty, and I don’t know why.’ I said, ‘What have you done wrong?’ And that came as a new concept. Guilt without sin is a very common concept among people. It’s like you carry around the sin of the world or something like that. I said, ‘Well, if you can tell me something you’ve done really wrong, then I could certainly appreciate that you feel guilty about it, and I think that’s good. The guilt will prevent you from doing it again. But if you’re all upset and worked up and you’ve done nothing wrong, then I have no interest in it. It’s up to you.’” pg. 111
Guilt is a huge factor when it comes to mental health. Not dealing with guilt effectively leads to a poor self-concept, broken relationships, and often a series of trips to a counselor or therapist. Religion is supposed to help us deal with guilt, but unfortunately, religion often does the opposite.
Thanks to a tip from a friend I was alerted to the work of Dr. Brene Brown, who does research on shame and guilt. In her book, Daring Greatly (2012), Brown states that “Shame derives its power from being unspeakable. That’s why it loves perfectionists—it’s so easy to keep us quiet. If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees. Shame hates having words wrapped around it. If we speak shame, it begins to wither.”
Shame is a foreboding sense of unworthiness that is powered by the belief that, at the core of who I am as a person, “I am bad.” Guilt, on the other hand, has to do with a specific behavior or mistake. Instead of thinking I am bad, our self-talk would say that “I did something bad.” Interestingly, while shame leads toward self-protection, blaming others, and rationalizing our imperfections, guilt can prod us toward apologizing and changing a behavior.
Glasser alerted me to the idea that guilt can be useful and serves a purpose when it 1) causes us to stay aligned with our deeply held values, and 2) helps us stay connected to others. Brown seems to view guilt in the same way, that it can be a healthy part of our lives, but emphasizes how shame is different altogether from guilt. Shame causes us to isolate rather than reach out, to become silent rather than communicate openly, and to wrap ourselves in aloneness rather than foster intimacy with those who are important to us.
It might be hard to believe there is good news in guilt, but apparently there is.
The eBook version can be accessed at –
The paperback version can be accessed at –
or from Amazon at –
Signed copies of Champion of Choice can be accessed through me at –
Thanks Jim. I am encountering this emotional reaction with those in the grieving process. I have felt, instinctually, that allowing and even encouraging people to claim their mistakes does just what Brown suggests–puts words to the shame, transforming it from a dark secret to the light of truth. Seems very compatible with I John 1:9 “If we confess, God is faithful to forgive . . . ” I found this quote in your article to remind me of the story of the first parents of this planet, “Shame causes us to isolate rather than reach out, to become silent rather than communicate openly, and to wrap ourselves in aloneness rather than foster intimacy with those who are important to us.” It was the shame that drove them to hide and isolate. Guilt is a powerful motivator for change when we allow it access to the beauty of God’s forgiveness. And isn’t it His goodness that leads to repentance (guilt desiring change)?
Karen, your thoughts have added value to this post. I think we all deal with shame and guilt, so often in a way that doesn’t serve us very well. Your comment underscores the importance of not letting shame paralyze us.
Jim, I really enjoyed this piece; thank you for the inspiration. Guilt (as emotion/affect in the feeling component) has always seemed to me to mean that the person has violated their own Quality World. Quick forgiveness, in a way, seems to minimize that Quality World. To stay with the guilt, to support a person who seeks ways to restore the Quality World; literally to celebrate that World, has always seemed the wiser path. I really want to think more on this as I used to wonder that guilt would be the emotional component of a behavior a person has chosen in violation of the QWP and shame is in the emotional component when something is done to a person which violates their QW. It seems it might be more challenging to invent and create behaviors which could ameliorate that shame, but having the courage to reveal shameful secrets is surely a beginning. Then the counselor can redirect the shameful act away from the person back to the perpetrator and other possible behaviors emerge: therapeutic writing, reporting, disclosing, intervening, etc. Not sure of this…..
I, too, am on the “beginning” end of thinking this through.
It is possible to have conflicting pictures in our QW. We want to get up and exercise and we want to sleep in; we want to be thin and we want a high fat, high sugar diet. We ultimately choose one and minimize the other.
Guilt, to me, has a feeling component, but it also has a thinking component. I think cognitively process guilt.
In the same way that skin sensors tell us when we are touching a hot stove, maybe the guilt mechanism ideally helps to point us toward our deeply held values.
You took me back to my CTRT training here, Jim. Like you, my background training led to me always apologizing for things I thought I was falling short on, but it caught up with me during my Advanced Week , when I apologized for arriving late after being stuck in traffic, my AW trainer questioned my choice to apologize when she enlightened me with, “But how is guilt helping you? Guilt is the antithesis of responsibility.” At the time it left me confused but as I gave it the luxury of time to let it sink in, I began to agree with her in my evolving belief system. I believe that is what Glasser was conveying also above. It is a fruitless waste of energy.
Hmmm . . . “Guilt is the antithesis of responsibility.”
Or re-stated, “Guilt is the opposite of responsibility.”
Guilt is the thinking and feeling that results from behaving in a way that is inconsistent with your values. I suppose it could be said this is irresponsible, but I think this misses something somehow. When we misbehave we are choosing something that we think will best meet our needs at that moment. To say we are just behaving irresponsibly seems to infer that we have given our choosing power away – maybe to someone else, to something else, or to the moment. It seems that choice theory explains how we are always behaving responsibly. We do wrong when we want to do it and then we act on that want.
Just thinking out loud here.
That was exactly the place I went when she said it , Jim. Your thinking was similar to my own, but in this case it was the best thing she could have said to me because up to that time I was an addicted guilter and perhaps she picked up on that when she chose the response she did because it took me so much deeper into what guilting really is that I grew from it. To me it was another way of saying “Let it go,” but maybe widening the pain a little to help me see the light. Language is ‘in the people’ for sure.
Jim, this really makes a lot of sense! Thanks for sharing it…