Overcoming Guilt


This document as of 7/19/15 is at version 0.2At this stage the document contains some, but not all, the material which will be available in version 1.0. The material that is available is raw thought it has been organized into rough sections.

Why Guilt?

“What is the function of guilt?…What is the basis of guilt?” (Burns 198) “Guilt is the emotion you will experience when you have the following thoughts:

  1. I have done something I shouldn’t have (or I have failed to do something that I should have) because my actions fall short of my moral standards and violate my concept of fairness.
  2. This ‘bad behavior’ shows that I am a bad person (or that I have an evil streak, or a tainted character, or a rotten core, etc.)” (Burns 198-199)

As you might have guessed, Dr. Burns is going to take a perspective on the origin and function of guilt with which I cannot agree with all of his methods or conclusions in their entirety.

“This concept of the ‘badness’ of self is central to guilt. In its absence, your hurtful action might lead to a healthy feeling of remorse but not guilt. Remorse stems from the undistorted awareness that you have willfully and unnecessarily acted in a hurtful manner toward yourself or another person that violates your personal ethical standards. Remorse differs from guilt because there is no implication your transgression indicates you are inherently bad, evil, or immoral. To put it in a nutshell, remorse or regret are aimed at behavior, whereas guilt is targeted toward the ‘self.'” (Burns 199)

“If in addition to your guilt you feel depression, shame, or anxiety, you are probably making one of the following assumptions:

  1. Because of my ‘bad behavior,’ I am inferior or worthless (this interpretation leads to depression).
  2. If others found out what I did, they would look down on me (this cognition leads to shame).
  3. I’m in danger of retaliation or punishment (this thought provokes anxiety).” (Burns 199)


  1. That you did something wrong (you may or may not have). (Burns 199-200)
  2. You label yourself ‘bad’ because of what you did. (Burns 200)
  3. You personalize, that is you “inappropriately assume responsibility for an event you did not cause.” (Burns 200)
  4. Inappropriate “should” statements. (Burns 201)
    1. “Irrational should statements imply you are expected to be perfect, all-knowing, or all-powerful. Perfectionistic shoulds include rules for living that defeat you by creating impossible expectations and rigidity.” (Burns 201).
    2. We do not have all the knowledge in the universe, therefore we can only make the best decision possible with the information at hand. (Burns 201-202)
    3. We do not have all the power in the universe, therefore we are unable to control either ourselves or other people to a great extent. (Burns 202)
  • “Because cognitive therapy asserts that only your thoughts create your feelings, you might come to the nihilistic belief that you cannot hurt anybody no matter what you do, and hence you have license to do anything.” (Burns 201)
    • “Wrong!…To the extent that a person’s emotional upset is caused by his distorted thoughts…he is responsible for his suffering…if a person’s suffering is caused by valid undistorted thoughts, then the suffering is real and may in fact have an external cause.” (Burns 201)
  • “In addition to distortion, several other criteria can be helpful in distinguishing abnormal guilty from a healthy sense of remorse or regret. These include the intensity, duration, and consequences of your negative emotion.” (Burns 202)

The Guilt Cycle

“Even if your guilt is unhealthy and based on distortion, once you begin to feel guilty, you may become trapped in an illusion that makes the guilt appear valid…You reason:” (Burns 203)

  1. “I feel guilty and worthy of condemnation. This means I’ve been bad.
  2. Since I’m bad, I deserve to suffer.” (Burns 203)

“Emotional reasoning fuels this cycle. You automatically assume that because you’re feeling guilty, you must have fallen short in some way and that you deserve to suffer.” (Burns 203)

“Your self-punishing behavior patterns intensify the guilt cycle. Your guilt-provoking thoughts lead to unproductive actions that reinforce your belief in your badness.” (Burns 204)

The Irresponsibility of Guilt

“If you have actually done something inappropriate or hurtful, does it follow that you deserve to suffer? If you feel the answer to this question is yes, then ask yourself, ‘How long must I suffer?’…What sentence will you choose to impose on yourself? Are you willing to stop suffering and making yourself miserable when your sentence has expired? This would at least be a responsible way to punish yourself because it would be time-limited. But what is the point of abusing yourself with guilt in the first place?” (Burns 204-205)

  • It will not magically reverse the wrong done. (Burns 205)
  • It won’t increase the speed at which you learn not to repeat the wrong. (Burns 205)
  • Other people won’t love or respect you more for feeling guilty. (Burns 205)
  • The guilt will not make you more productive. (Burns 205)

“Change and learning occur most readily when you (a) recognize that an error has occurred and (b) develop a strategy for correcting the problem. An attitude of self-love and relaxation facilitates this, whereas guilt often interferes.” (Burns 206)

“…what is called for when you do goof up is a process of recognition, learning and change. Does guilt help you with any of these? I don’t believe it does.” (Burns 206)

“You can replace your guilt with a more enlightened basis for moral behavior–empathy. Empathy is the ability to visualize the consequences, good and bad, of your behavior….the capacity to conceptualize the impact of what you do…and to feel appropriate and genuine sorrow and regret without labeling yourself as inherently bad.” (Burns 207)

Differentiating Between Healthy Remorse and Unhealthy Guilt

  1. “Did I consciously and willfully do something ‘bad,’ ‘unfair,’ or needlessly hurtful that I shouldn’t have?…
  2. Am I labeling myself as a bad or tainted person because of this action?…
  3. Am I feeling a realistic regret or remorse, which results from an empathic awareness of the negative impact of my action? Are the intensity and duration of my painful emotional response appropriate to what I actually did?
  4. Am I learning from my error and developing a strategy for change, or am I moping and ruminating nonproductively or even punishing myself in a destructive manner?” (Burns 207)
  • Daily Record of Dysfunctional Thoughts (Burns 208-209)
  • Should Removal Techniques (208, 210-218)
  • Learn to Stick to Your Guns (218-222)
  • Anti-whiner Techniques (222-223)
  • Moorey Moaner Method (223-225)
  • Developing Perspective (225-228)

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