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Healthy vs Unhealthy Guilt

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Published July 19, 2023

By Nailah Dean

Have you ever encountered the heavy feeling that you did something wrong? Did it follow you around for days, weeks, or months nagging at you with flashbacks of the mistake you made? Do you remember the sinking sense of remorse even after you sought forgiveness or repentance? That little pesky emotion called guilt is a natural part of the human experience.

The American Psychological Association defines guilt as the “self-conscious emotion characterized by a painful appraisal of having done (or thought) something that is wrong and often by a readiness to take action designed to undo or mitigate this wrong.”

In my attempts to learn about this emotion, how it impacts us, and how to use it for our benefit, I discovered that psychologists divide guilt into two categories: healthy guilt, and unhealthy guilt. They have studied the positive impacts of “healthy” guilt and found that it can result in positive behavior, whereas studies on “unhealthy” guilt show that it leads people to self-deprecating behaviors.

Shame, which sometimes accompanies guilt, is described as, “the additional strong fear of one’s deeds being publicly exposed to judgment or ridicule.” Distinguishing the two is important and it is said that “[s]hame is about the self” while “guilt is about things in the real world—acts or failures to act, events for which one bears responsibility” (Lewis, 1971).

There is a fine line between guilt that is “healthy” and guilt that is “unhealthy.” Unhealthy guilt can often lead to shame, can become excessive and destructive, and is unable to find forgiveness. It is important to understand the distinction between healthy and unhealthy guilt in order to create an emotionally stable life. It is even more important to comprehend the distinction as a Muslim.

Feeling Guilt, Seeking Forgiveness

In Islam, we are taught the importance of atoning for our sins. Seeking forgiveness from Allah is as simple as saying “astagfirullah.” Yet, the requirements are sincerity, honesty with oneself, and the willingness and ability to accept that Allah SWT forgives us again and again.

In order to genuinely repent, one must have an active conscience that produces feelings of guilt when one has done wrong. This is all part of operating from the nafs al-lawwamah, the self-reproaching soul, which is the second stage of the soul. At the lowest stage, one indulges in sin and wrongdoing without any pangs of conscience. But the self-reproaching soul has become conscious of shortcomings and wrongdoings and is vigilant about working on the self. Repenting for wrongdoing and asking Allah for forgiveness is then the natural course of action.

The meaning of reproach is “to find fault with, to blame.” However, Islam is the middle way, the way of balance and proper proportion. So, when we are striving to live on a daily basis as a self-reproaching soul, we are not looking to beat ourselves down, to hate ourselves, or live in a guilt-laden way. When we commit to self-reproach, we try to be honest with ourselves, to admit when we have done wrong and strive to correct it. Imam Shafi’i said, “Whoever bears testimony to his [own] weaknesses will be granted uprightness.”

If the sin or wrongdoing requires asking for forgiveness from another person, we are encouraged to make peace with the person as soon as possible. We are warned of the dangers of not seeking absolution in this life by learning about the people who carry guilt on Judgment Day. A verse in the Qur’an provides this warning: “And the Day the wrongdoer will bite on his hands [in regret] he will say, ‘Oh, I wish I had taken with the Messenger a way. Oh, woe to me! I wish I had not taken that one as a friend’” (25:27-28).

Healthy Guilt Has a Positive Impact on Behavior

We are commanded to reflect on our wrongdoings while we have the opportunity to correct them. In this vein, we find benefit in having healthy guilt. The feeling hangs on our hearts and agitates our minds, making us feel bogged down, stressed, and anxious. Thus, it provides us with an internal reminder to repent and strive to do better. This has positive effects on the individual, emotionally, spiritually, and behaviorally. Social science supports this assessment. A study by Hoffman et al. (1982) found that children who displayed a healthy sense of guilt were more likely to exhibit prosocial behavior and empathy towards others. An article in Psychology Today mentions a 2007 study by Tangney et al. that “found that individuals who experienced healthy guilt were more likely to have higher levels of moral reasoning and be less likely to engage in unethical behavior.”

As these studies indicate, healthy guilt can have a positive impact on our behavior. Not only can it trigger positive actions like seeking repentance, but it can be beneficial to preventing harmful actions or behavior in the future. On the other hand, unhealthy guilt often slides into shame and can have a negative impact on our growth and spirituality. The APA’s definition for shame is:
“a highly unpleasant self-conscious emotion arising from the sense of there being something dishonorable, immodest, or indecorous in one’s own conduct or circumstances. It is typically characterized by withdrawal from social intercourse […] which can have a profound effect on psychological adjustment and interpersonal relationships. Shame may motivate not only avoidant behavior but also defensive, retaliative anger.”

Instead of inspiring one to take steps to seek repentance, or reform one’s behavior in the future, unhealthy guilt can be crippling. In 2011, a study by Moser et al. found that excessive guilt was associated with symptoms of depression and anxiety. Participants who experienced unhealthy guilt were even more likely to engage in self-punishing behaviors.

As Muslims, we must be especially careful to recognize and resolve feelings of unhealthy guilt, because they can prevent us from seeking closeness to Allah. Shaytan may attempt to convince us that our actions are so terrible that they are not worthy of forgiveness. However, Allah directs us to call to him whenever we fall short: “O My servants who have transgressed against themselves [by sinning], do not despair of the mercy of Allah. Indeed, Allah forgives all sins. Indeed, it is He who is the Forgiving, the Merciful” (39:53).

This verse teaches us that we should never hesitate to turn to Allah. He loves when we call upon Him for assistance, for guidance, for His forgiveness.

Avatar photo Nailah DeanAuthor Nailah Dean is a lawyer and creative writer based in California. She writes about the intersection of faith and love for young American Muslims. Follow her on Instagram @Nailahdean28 and her blogs on Substack:

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