When guilt weighs heavy

Guilt is one of the most unpleasant emotions. At its worst, it can be debilitating, taking over every thought. Unlike other emotions, guilt really does weigh one down. In 2013, researchers from the University of Waterloo and Princeton University in the United States found that unlike other negative emotions – sadness, fear and shame for example – guilt makes one feel heavier.

It is quite reasonable for one to shy away from guilt and it is also difficult to believe that guilt can have positive benefits. Yet, like the other negative emotions we have explored in earlier articles, guilt is just another message from the brain telling one to act.

American fiction writer Sabaa Tahir summed guilt up well when she wrote: “There are two kinds of guilt: the kind that drowns you until you’re useless, and the kind that fires your soul to purpose.”

Value system

When one feels guilt it is usually because one has done something that goes against one’s value system.

All of us have a set of values, which determine what is right and wrong, against which we live our lives. These can be based on one’s upbringing and the principles of good behaviour learnt from one’s parents. Values can come from religion, school, society and legislation.

As we will explore in a later article, building a strong value system is imperative for a good CEO. Not only does this drive individual behaviour but it must be translated across the organisation to create a solid culture deciding how all employees should behave.

A value system is a complex structure and takes time to create. It is also fluid. For example, one’s value systems change if we adopt religion. Take someone who converts to Islam. Where once they might have drunk alcohol with impunity, and felt no guilt, on becoming a Muslim were they to drink, they would feel guilt. This is because their value system – the feelings of what is right and wrong in the world – have changed.

Again, value systems change when one becomes a parent. One might have enjoyed working long hours, perhaps even committing whole weekends to building a business. Yet when one becomes a parent, the need to dedicate more time to family life sees guilt creep in when one is at the office more than one is at home.

Appropriate response

These feelings of guilt are healthy. They remind one to keep within ones’ value system. It is helpful to feel guilty if one’s behaviour hurts ourselves or others. Guilt is necessary to help us get back on track. For example, when one is on a diet, the guilt felt from sneaking a biscuit helps us to stick to the healthy eating plan. 

There are two appropriate responses to guilt.

  1. To try and not violate one’s belief system again by working out what drove the behaviour and ensuring that the action is not repeated.
  2. Evaluate one’s belief system and decide whether it still corresponds to how one wants to behave.

In the first scenario, one might ensure there are no biscuits in the house to avoid temptation. In the second scenario, one might decide the parameters of the diet are too strict and that one or two biscuits is really nothing to feel guilty about. As Tahir says, this is guilt that ‘fires your soul to purpose’.

As we have explored in earlier articles, it can be helpful to seek outside support at this point. Does a third party consider your belief system too restrictive for example?

Inappropriate guilt

Guilt is a difficult emotion to manage since one might feel it inappropriately.

This is particularly challenging in the business world when individuals must make difficult decisions that affect other people’s lives.

Take an example where a CEO must fire a senior manager. In this situation the individual has been caught stealing. There is no question that the CEO must terminate the manager’s employment, yet she still feels guilty.

This is because the manager has a long service with the company, he has children, this behaviour is completely out of character.

Yet if the CEO allows this guilt to cloud their judgment, they will compromise their belief system rather than act within it. They will also be sacrificing the stability and integrity of the firm. If one employee can be caught stealing and remain on the payroll, what is to stop this from happening again?

Here we can see an example of guilt that ‘drowns you until you are useless’. The guilt is misplaced and may led to poor decision making. Of course, it is unpleasant to fire someone who has until now proven loyal and who has a family to feed, but the CEO must focus on the fact their value system is strong. It is wrong to steal, and the right course of action is to remove the offending employee.

Processing guilt

Given the potential complexities of understanding guilt, it is important to process this emotion effectively.

This requires spending time working through one’s intelligence – IQ – to understand what has happened, if there is fault and if so where it lies. Again, it can be useful to seek third party support to have impartial input in assessing situations. The next stage is allowing emotional intelligence – EQ – to help respond appropriately to the situation. Both IQ and EQ feed into the value system and one needs to use these to process guilt and react effectively.

As we have explored with other negative emotions [we will look at positive emotions in a later article] guilt can be beneficial in driving positive behaviour. However, it is a complex and requires discipline to use appropriately.


Guilt tells us when we have broken our value system. The value system is a set of beliefs that is personal to each of us and tells us what we believe are the right and wrong ways to behave. Guilt helps one to say on track, to make sure one behaves well and to correct others when they may do something to hurt us, others or even a business.

However, guilt can be destructive if one fails to understand it. One must take time to recognise when guilt is misplaced. Feeling guilty inappropriately can lead to bad decision making which is ultimately destructive personally and professionally.It can be helpful to have a third-party sense check one’s value systems from time to time and to feed in when one is unsure how to process one’s guilt.

For more information on managing emotions in business contact us.

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