Growth through self-reflection: a case of guilt

A woman who tends her garden at sunriseThe title of this article may seem a little strange. Guilt is not a pleasant experience – how can it be beneficial? The answer is that guilt can prevent us from behaving in behaviors that can harm others and ourselves. Although this is true, it is too simplistic when left as an argument on its own. It can be argued that it is best to do the right not to avoid guilt, but to do what is right.

Our guilt is more motivating to avoid the behavior that will make us feel. Guilt invites self-reflection. This is the greatest possibility that is inherent in guilt, but we must be willing to stay with the feeling of taking advantage of these possibilities.

Do not get rid of the guilt: Work through it

Different types of guilt can justify different approaches to work through them. I will discuss three main types of guilt: neurotic guilt, reality guilt and existential guilt.

With existential guilt, I will also identify three different subtypes. When we work with guilt instead of trying to overcome or get rid of quickly, the result is often wisdom and growth. When trying quickly to get rid of guilt, we are often doomed to repeat similar behaviors.

When people express feelings of guilt and sadness, a common response from others is to encourage them to "let go" or to forgive themselves, especially when it seems that the individual is too harsh for themselves. This is well-designed advice, but it may be short-lived.

The three types of guilt

Neurotic guilt is based on something for which no one should feel guilty. It is disproportionate to the fact that caused it. It may even be valuable to understand where the neurotic guilt originates in order to identify its deepest roots. For example, neurotic guilt can have its roots in experiences by being inappropriately ashamed of something like a child. Identifying cause instead of working only to relieve guilt quickly can help resolve neurotic guilt at its source.

Actual guilt or guilt based on reality may seem easier to understand. If we act in a selfish way that causes harm to a friend or a loved one, it is good to feel guilty, but still important to avoid quick, simple solutions. If we were quick to apologize and forgive ourselves, we might lose opportunities for deeper understanding and wisdom that may arise from dealing with our guilt.

Rollo may believe self-awareness is the basis for ethical behavior. When we accept the invitation for reflection that accompanies the real guilt, we may end up understanding ourselves better so that we can make informed changes to our lives.

Rollo may believe self-awareness is the basis for ethical behavior. When we accept the invitation for reflection that accompanies real guilt, we can better understand ourselves so that we can make informed changes to our lives.

A third type of guilt, existential guilt, is often inevitable. It has its roots in the human condition. Rollo can identify three basic types of existential guilt, each of which relates to different aspects or ways of our existence: personal, interpersonal / social, and physical.

The three subtypes of existential guilt

The existential guilt on a personal level is not to meet our capabilities. If we accept the invitation to reflect on this form of existential guilt, we can recognize where we are not seeking to fulfill our abilities and to determine what prevents us from realizing it.

At the interpersonal level, existential guilt can easily be confused with real guilt. However, existential guilt at the social level focuses more on one's responsibility towards others and society in general, as opposed to specific interpersonal offenses (May 1958). When one is aware of the injustice in the world around him but does nothing to make a difference, they may feel an existential guilt. It is not that they are involved in a behavior that has caused harm, but they feel guilty of participating in a system or culture that causes harm without supporting change. This guilt has its roots in understanding that we are social creatures and we have a responsibility to others with whom we share this world.

He may believe that existential guilt in the physical world is the most widespread and complex. This is due to our connection to the natural world and our environment. For example, neglecting the natural environment can lead to existential guilt. Guilt may not be due to deliberate damage, but may be caused by inaction or neglect.

These different types of existential guilt recognize that we are both independent beings and social beings at the same time. When we deny our nature as individuals or social beings, it leads to guilt. It is impossible to realize all our abilities, to talk about every social injustice and to deal with any environmental injustice. As a result, we are obliged to have some degree of existential guilt.

For those who are deeply aware of existential guilt, this may feel overwhelming. The lesson of existential guilt is not that we must try to do everything but that we should try to find a balance in which we participate in our personal development and responsibility in the social and physical world while we accept that we can not do it all.


Guilt is a call to reflection. It invites us to think about our lives and the way we live. It invites us to consider whether we live responsibly and live according to our values. When we accept the invitation and participate in this reflection, we are often able to achieve deeper wisdom. We can live in accordance with our values.

For Victor Frankl, this concern is the key to happiness. He believed that happiness becomes more vague when we seek it directly and that it is best achieved through the right life. When we live well and in accordance with our values ​​and principles, happiness follows.

If you are struggling with feelings of guilt, guaranteed or unjustifiably, an authorized and compassionate therapist can help you work through them.

Bibliographical references:

  1. Frankl, V. (1984). Man is looking for meaning: Introduction to speech therapy (3rd edition). New York, New York: Touchstone.
  2. May, R. (1958). Contributions of existential psychotherapy. In Existence. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc.
  3. May, R. (1975). The courage to create. New York, New York: Norton.

© Copyright 2018 All rights reserved. The publication authorization was granted by Louis Hoffman, PhD, a therapist in Colorado Springs, Colorado

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