Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Use of Guilt

Churches, Christians, and people in general often use guilt to motivate (or control) people. It's also used in the mental health field.

This is not always a bad thing. We often talk about using religious beliefs against suicide to guilt someone into not killing themselves. If that's what keeps someone alive, I'm all for it. (I'll be writing another post on suicide in the next day or two.)

However, often guilt just doesn't work too well. It turns people off, makes them angry, puts them on the defensive, and shuts them down. Now, I've heard the arguments of pointing out people's transgressions. Okay, fine.

But it doesn't always work. Frankly, guilting someone rarely works, I think. In fact, those who it affects are the ones who don't need it, in my experience.

For instance, as many know, I'm the therapist for a child inpatient unit at a psychiatric hospital. A lot of the time, once I talk with the parents, I realize the kid doesn't have a problem: The parent does. Some parents feel guilty. I spoke with one mother last week for over an hour and she cried over her guilt. The kid has autism. It ain't the mother's fault at all. Yet she experiences it. She doesn't need to be guilted. She has done an amazing job trying to get him resources. In contrast, the parents who really did play a role virtually never feel guilt.

I've seen this in churches, too. The people who need to feel the remorse feel nothing, while those who are remorseful feel even worse about themselves, usually leading to more paralysis than motivation to action.

To me, this reinforces the idea that we should not use guilt to motivate. It rarely, if ever, works like it should and usually causes more problems than it sought to remedy. What are you experiences and observations?


  1. An excellant post,Josh!

    When it comes to guilt-trips layed over relationship problems,
    often I think, those trying to change someone's behavior find that their efforts sail right over the heads of the person they are trying to change just as the bad behavior was beyond that person's conscience in the first place.

    Explaining how it is affecting themselves and others may work, but Guilt seldom works. I agree.


  2. Using guilt to motivate and control is sort of like trying to use the flesh-eating virus in order to loose weight. You can't get it to nip and tuck just where you want--the destructive effects get out of control.

    A couple of interesting research studies have implications. Ongoing exposure to negative religiosity has been shown to damage the anterior cingulate in the brain (an area that impacts a variety of positive and relational functions). Also, imagining somebody who you think of as wanting you to have fun increases cognitive abilities while imagining somebody who wants to control your life decreases it.

    The use of negative emotional experiences such as guilt tends to backfire. And, like you say, those that are most impacted by it are the most are the ones who need it the least.



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