Healthy Guilt and Unhealthy Guilt- What’s the Difference?

by | Nov 12, 2019 | Bring Your Own Bible and Beverage

Guilt. It was the subject of our last BYOB and B evening of encouragement, and I believe many of us in attendance learned much about it. Guilt can dictate how we think and how we act. It affects our relationship with others, and it can stand in the way of our relationship with God.

And, yet, sometimes we feel guilty for something good, or something we didn’t do, or something we think we should do. It’s crazy all the things we can feel guilty about, isn’t it?

Mental health professionals say a wide variety of guilt exists. Today we’re lumping them into two categories… healthy guilt and unhealthy guilt.

Healthy guilt and unhealthy guilt - What's the difference?

Healthy guilt vs. unhealthy guilt

Yes, believe it or not, guilt can be healthy. Guilt that extends from something wrong we’ve done falls into this category. This kind of guilt can be useful and productive. Feeling bad after messing up or doing something wrong can actually be a good thing. No, it may not feel good in the moment, but in reality, it can be good. It can lead to change, such as an apology or a decision to make different choices in the future. It can correct our thinking which enables us to correct our actions.

This kind of guilt corrects. It says I’m still a good person even though I did something bad.

The other kind of guilt, the unhealthy kind, however, says I’m a bad person because I did something bad.

You see? There’s a difference.

One says I did something wrong. The other says I am wrong. This is where guilt becomes unhealthy and can turn to shame.

Some unhealthy guilt statements may sound like:

  • I feel guilty for going back to work after having my baby.
  • I should have spent more time with my parents.
  • I’m an awful person for what I’ve done and the mistakes I’ve made.

This kind of guilt is not good for us. It’s depleting, it’s degrading, and it’s damaging. And, it condemns.

Healthy guilt is correcting; unhealthy guilt is condemning.

Whereas God uses the good kind of guilt for our good and growth, the enemy of our souls uses the unhealthy kind against us. To point fingers at, to condemn, to blame. He wants us to question our worth. He wants to do all he can to stop us from being the person God wants us to be. If our enemy can accuse us with guilt, he can make us ineffective in life. And when that happens, we lose our purpose and our sense of worth. We ride a downward spiral to a very dark place, to a prison of guilt and shame. And, many spend the rest of their lives there.

How do I know? Because I’ve been there.

One particular situation has led me to feel the weight of guilt for years, and it wasn’t connected to a sin, it was just something I wish I would have done differently. The December morning in 2006 when my mom passed away in the hospital, I wasn’t there. Her doctor called that morning and told me her time was short. I chose to finish something at home before heading to the hospital that morning. Mom passed as I was en route. The guilt of not being present when she died has weighed heavy upon me over the years. I wish I would have been there. I wish I could have held her hand as she exited this life and as Jesus took her other hand into the next.  

Even though I wish I could turn back time, the thing is, I’ll never get the chance to do that moment over. Never. This unhealthy kind of guilt often lingers in situations we can’t do anything about now. We can’t change it. So, our enemy makes us feel terrible about it. He doesn’t just whisper “you messed up.” He also whispers, “You’re a mess-up.”

It’s taken some time, but I’ve finally been able to release this guilt to God and be healed from it.

It’s okay to ask for help.

Unhealthy guilt based on a sin can also be just as damaging. Sometimes it’s hard to forgive ourselves. I understand how one can slide into a very dark place, even after confessing sin to God and receiving His forgiveness. Sometimes we can’t crawl out of the darkness on our own. We might need help.

If you find yourself in this place today or sometime down the road, I encourage you to welcome the assistance from a trained professional. God wants to lift us out of the muck of life and set us free on solid ground. Sometimes He uses professionals to help do that.  

He reached down and drew me from the deep, dark hole where I was stranded, mired in the muck and clay. With a gentle hand, He pulled me out to set me down safely on a warm rock; He held me until I was steady enough to continue the journey again.

Psalm 40:2 VOICE

God doesn’t leave us in the deep, dark hole of guilt and shame when we’re stuck there. He bends down to lift us out gently, sets us down on a warm rock and holds us until we’re steady enough to continue onward. 

Friend, if guilt is plaguing you, may I suggest a few things?

  • Read the steps in my prior post. Is it healthy guilt or unhealthy?
  • Take your guilt to God. Allow Him to use it and then to release it. He doesn’t want you to live burdened with guilt. He wants you to live free in His grace and mercy.
  • Forgive yourself. Since you’ve taken your guilt to God, He’s already forgiven you. Now it’s your turn to forgive yourself.
  • Immerse yourself in truth. Tomorrow’s post will contain Bible verses to cling to when you’re struggling with guilt.

Guilt doesn’t have the final say in our lives. God does. I’m praying for you today, friend.

You are loved!

Our next BYOB and B evening of encouragement is just around the corner, and we’re simplifying the season. If you’re local to me, you’re invited to join the fun! The details are below or you can read more here.

Simplify the Season
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