“A lot of people think guilt is automatically maladaptive. They think of it in a negative light,” Donohue says. But guilt can be a positive, healthy emotion, she adds.
“A moderate amount of guilt is typically really adaptive and healthy for your own psychological well-being, as well as your relationships with other people,” she says.
For instance, ethical guilt can help motivate you toward behaviors that are less harmful toward others.
A study that Malti coauthored, published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, looked at how this type of guilt in children might prevent them from hurting others when they feel angry. The research showed that kids who felt angry and who also felt a high degree of ethical guilt channeled their anger into screaming as an outlet — instead of into hurting another person by punching or kicking them.
“It is very common for anger to result in blowing up and harming others,” Malti says, “but this study shows that anger doesn’t always have to result in harm. We found that children prone to ethical guilt tend to redirect their anger into relatively harmless disruptive behaviors.”
The study suggests that ethical guilt may help you avoid carrying out that hurtful behavior, possibly helping your relationships with those around you.
Researchers also study how guilt and shame lead people to engage in what are called approach-oriented behaviors (such as apologizing or actively trying to repair a situation) and avoidance-oriented behaviors (such as keeping something a secret), says Brian Lickel, PhD, a social psychology professor and the director of the human relations lab at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
A study he coauthored in the journal Emotion suggests that guilt has been more often linked to approach behaviors and shame to more avoidant behaviors. Therefore, guilt is often considered more adaptive than shame in many instances.
So not only can ethical guilt prevent you from letting anger turn into violence, it can motivate you to apologize when you do something harmful.
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But guilt isn’t always helpful or healthy — it depends on the type of guilt. Feeling guilty when you didn’t actually do anything wrong — as in the child who feels guilt around their parents’ divorce — is considered unhealthy, Malti says.
As in Ho’s example of the person who cheated on their partner and then starts drinking and spending time away from their family, unaddressed guilt that becomes chronic might also lead to avoidant behaviors, not just approach ones.
Lastly, survivor guilt can be harmful. A study in the Journal of Loss & Trauma showed that guilt about surviving is often intense and distressing for the person experiencing it, and may be associated with having more severe post-traumatic stress disorder.