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The Psychology of Guilt

“Don’t Should On Yourself.” ~ Louise Hay

Cookie Jar Crimes

Remember when you were a kid… sneaking an extra cookie from the cookie jar when mom wasn’t looking? You’d rush back to your room and gobble down every last morsel before anyone found out. And when all the evidence was gone, when you’d brushed the crumbs under the bed and rinsed your hands of chocolate, nothing else remained but an adrenaline-fuelled sense of accomplishment.

There was no lingering regret or deep disappointment, no sense of personal failure or underachievement. Those were the good old days, because somewhere along the way, we adopted a whole new layer of self-criticism.


It’s that five-letter word that everyone knows and tosses around with reckless abandon, especially after Christmas—a season reputed for its excess. Most of us play fast and loose with the term, “guilt,” using it in reference to everything from excess spending or insufficient exercise to free-floating reasons like ‘being a bad mom’ or an inadequate son.

Having been raised Catholic myself and confessing my “sins” from the ripe age of ten, guilt and I share a long history. But whether you’re a recovered, recovering, or practicing Catholic or you’re a whole-hearted agnostic seems to make no difference. Guilt is as innate to our culture as mashed potatoes and gravy.

So what if “I feel guilty” isn’t part of your vocabulary? Does that mean you’re free of the widespread affliction? Not necessarily. Guilt is a tricky emotion: it can weasel its way into your psyche, whittling away self-confidence and doing damage without you even knowing it. The following 5 signs are indicators that you, too, suffer from conscience condemnation:

  1. You obsess about how you “should have” or “shouldn’t have” done something, anything.

  2. You can’t sleep due to ruminating over an event in the past (earlier that day or as far back as you can remember! Guilt has no expiration date).

  3. You avoid certain people or situations because they remind you of a time when you behaved in a less than admirable way.

Often the people affected by our sub-par behaviour have long since forgotten the event. But not us! No . . . guilt is the gift that keeps giving.

What if you knew there were psychological and even physiological repercussions of regret on your health and well-being? Would you reconsider your response before eagerly tsk-tsk-ing the mirror? Dr. Guy Winch, a New York-based psychologist says, “Unresolved or excessive guilt interferes with cognitive functioning, concentration, and daily tasks [and] inhibits us from enjoying life.” Other studies have shown that feeling guilty increases stress, bringing with it a whole gamut of unwanted symptomatology.

Consider: Did you really fall short of your moral expectations by indulging in Christmas cake? Can you live in the bright light of the solution by starting a sugar-free day, or must you wallow in the immobilizing feeling of regret?

Take your power back and substitute the word “should” with “could.” The change in phonetics is subtle, but the implications are profound. Should has you hanging your head with the weight of inadequacy, while could opens your eyes to possibility.

It really is that easy.

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