A quick note on guilt

You are standing, as a defendant, in a court room and the judge asks you “How do you plead?”

Your answer is “Not guilty Your Honor.”

At the end of the trial, you are either “guilty” or “not guilty”.

In this context, the meaning of the word “guilty” is directly connected to the event in question (the crime) and whether you did, or did not participate in that event.

The word guilty also applies to the emotion of guilt and the belief that you have done something “wrong”.

Let’s briefly explore the emotion of guilt.

The emotion of guilt communicates to you the message that you believe that your actions  have in some way violated..

  • your values,
  • your ethics,
  • your sense of right vs wrong or
  • some stated set of rules of conduct

Two examples…

Example #1:  Rationalized Theft

Many years ago, when I (as a young Boy Scout) attended a Boy Scout Jamboree, I was trading pocket patches with another Scout.  I did not realize until later that this Scout had stolen some of my prized patches.

I was incensed.

Later, when I had the opportunity to steal from another Scout, I did so and justified my actions by rationalizing that it was “okay” because it had happened to me.

(As a head’s up, in my next post, I will discuss the concept of rationalize vs rational lies.)

  • Did I know that what I did was “wrong”? Yes.
  • Did it bother me that I did it? Not at first.
  • Did I feel guilty as I thought about what I had done?  Yes

The emotion of guilt that I experienced was doing its job….

  1. by informing me that I had violated my own value that stealing was wrong
  2. by motivating me to take action to make right the wrong I had committed.

This is what guilt (as an emotion) is designed to do.

When you strategically deploy guilt as an emotion, your task is to go through the steps of the emotional process which includes:

  • correctly labelling the emotion as guilt
  • taking a deep breath to decrease your emotional arousal
  • taking a “step” back from the situation to increase your objectivity
  • assessing the validity of the actions you have taken by attempting to determine whether it was right or wrong according to your values not the context
  • choosing an appropriate response to rectify what has been done (if needed)

When it comes to dealing with the emotion of guilt, there are four options..

  1. assess the situation and realize that you did not do anything wrong, based on the situation, context, and objective reality of what you did that  and let the guilt dissipate
  2. stop the behavior, make the situation right and eliminate your guilt
  3. continue the behavior and attempt to deny your guilt
  4. continue the behavior, rationalize your actions, and move past your guilt.

Options #1 and #2 involve mastering the emotion of guilt and are the most appropriate responses.

Option #3 doesn’t work because the emotion will always come back

Option #4 is just masochistic  in that it rationalizes an unwanted behavior and makes you vulnerable to negative consequences  at some future date.

In this space, I have attempted to give you the tools to understand your emotions, utilize the message of your emotions as motivation to engage the emotional process and strategically deploy your emotions as motivators to improve your life and your relationships.

From this perspective, the best option for you to take when you experience the emotion of guilt is (depending on your assessment) either #1 or #2.

Closure for example #1..

By the way, I acted on my guilt by finding the Scout whose patches I had stolen, explained that I had found them in my backpack, realized that they were his, and returned them.  I still got in trouble but the “sentence” was reduced for “good behavior”.

Example #2:  Exaggerated Guilt

While working as a Psychologist for the California Youth Authority, I treated several young women who had killed their children.

While the “facts” of each case were not in question, treating the impact of the emotion of guilt was an issue.

Specifically, these young women not only felt guilty for what they had done but viewed themselves as “monsters” based on the seriousness of their crime.

My therapeutic approach was to “normalize” their guilt and help them realize that while their actions may have been monstrous, they were not monsters because the context of their actions (including their own abuse) made their actions “understandable”.

Now, I need to emphasize two points…

First. I never exonerated them for what they did.  They did it, their guilt was appropriate, and they were being “punished”.  What I did, therapeutically, was to put their guilt in perspective so that it could function as a learning tool and not as an impediment to their psychological growth.

Secondly, I need to point out that I was never rationalizing or justifying what they did.  The context, in each case, did make what they did understandable.

The context, however, never made what they did right!

The Power of Words 3: “Feeling Stuck”?

                                                                                    This is the third post of a three part                   series on the power of words.  My intent has been to highlight the psychological impact of words we commonly use but rarely think about in terms of what these words actually mean, how they  impact us, and how to choose more adaptive words to facilitate psychological progress.

The words you use to describe how you perceive the situation in which you find yourself are often highly significant for several reasons…

  • The words reflect your perception
  • Your perception reflects your assessment of your situation and elicit specific emotions.
  • Your emotions lead to and elicit behavior which may, or may not, contribute to your successfully dealing with your situation.
  • Like most people, you may use these words almost habitually and not think about what they mean (or what they do, or do not, communicate).

    A not-uncommon scenario…

You are “working” on a project and find yourself unable to make any progress.   

Someone asks you:

                                                                                                       “How’s it going? ”            

You say,

                                                                                            “I‘m stuck.”

What exactly does it mean to “be stuck”?

Let’s take a look at what stuck might involve.

“Being stuck.”

These words only communicate that forward progress on the project has stopped.

That’s it.

There is no information in this communication that you can use to restore the progress you were making before y0u “got stuck”.

Let’s dig deeper…

What is the underlying reason that you are “stuck”?

This information is crucial if you wish to get unstuck because you have to know the obstacle you are facing in order to do something about that obstacle.

Are you….

  •  facing a “wall”?
  •  in an emotional quagmire?
  • have misaligned priorities?

The wall —-

  • There is some obstruction preventing you from moving forward.
  • You need something you don’t have such as an approval, an idea, or a change in something  like a policy.
  • You are lacking resources/authority/understanding/courage.

An emotional quagmire

  • Your emotions are holding you back.
  • You are procrastinating.
  • You are seeking perfection.
  • You are anxious and focusing on what could go wrong.

Misplaced priorities

  • You are being “forced” to do something ( it is someoneelse’s priority)
  • There are burdensome time constraints.
  • You have other priorities.

Once you have identified the underlying obstacle that you are facing, you can use the correct words to describe that obstacle and you can make a plan to deal with, move through, and, thereby, eliminate the obstacle.

Examples include:

  • I cannot progress until I get the needed authorization, resources, data sets, etc.
  • I am not making progress because my approach to this project isn’t producing useful ideas.  Perhaps, I need to step back and take a different perspective.
  • I’m not making progress because I am so anxious about how the project will turn out.  The message of anxiety is that there MAY be a future threat.  I need to examine the validity of possible threats, move on if these threats are not credible or take action to nullify them.
  • I am not making progress because I am annoyed that I am being redirected from my priorities to work on this project. Oh well, suck it up. This is the job and, while I might not like it, it is what it is and I need to focus to get it done so I can get back to my priorities.
  • I’m procastinating because I want this project to be perfect.  Yet, when I think about it, perfection is impossible so I will do the best I can and go from there.  That is all I can legitimately expect.

In the last three posts, I have attempted to put a spotlight on the words you use to describe/define the situations you find yourself in.  These words are often not challenged or even given a whole lot of thought.  They just come out and are accepted as valid,. informative and accurate.

The challenge is that the words you use are often not accurate.

Whether accurate or not, the words you use impact your emotions and the actions you take.

Now that you know this, you will be better able to question the words you use in situations that are important to you.

By changing your language, you empower yourself to  take adaptive action. When the obstacle is nullified, you are no longer stuck and you can move forward.

These are links to posts which address other relevant topics to “being stuck”

other emotions

other words

mastering emots as tools

The Power of Words 2: “Divorced” or “Single”? Psychologically, It Makes a Big Difference!

Your marriage was legally dissolved 5 (2,10, 15) years ago.     Do you think of yourself as “divorced” or “single”?

One day as a friend of the family and I were chatting about her “X”, I asked her this question……

“Are you divorced or are you single?”

She looked at me as if I was speaking a foreign language that she did not understand and said… “Huh, what does that mean?”

In my last post, I talked about the power a questioner on Quora had given the innocuous word “ok” to elicit anger.

I’m continuing here to discuss the power of words but in a different context.


If you have gone to court to dissolve your marriage, you are legally divorced.


Now, as a matter of disclosure, I am not an attorney so I can’t address any legal or financial issues that involve the label “divorced”.  I am only addressing the psychological issues.

That said..

Once your marriage is dissolved, you are also  “legally” (in quotes based on the above disclaimer) single.

The power of words…


What this word should mean is that you are now legally separated from your “X” and can move on in your life with a fresh start.


As I explained to my friend, as long as she psychologically considered herself “divorced”, there remained a connection to her marriage and her “X”. To the extent that this connection indicates unresolved feelings including anger, guilt, shame, or regret, she was stuck in the past and was not able to grow beyond her marriage and get on with her life.

This is what was going on.

She believed her “failed” marriage was her fault.  This led to feelings of shame and guilt (self-blame) and regret.

She was pissed at her “X” for cheating.  This led to the feeling of anger.

She wasn’t sure she could fully recover.  This led to feelings of anxiety.

While she was aware of her anger and vaguely aware of her shame and guilt (not the same), anxiety and regret, all of these feelings were wrapped up in, and elicited by, the word “divorced”.

She was emotionally attached to, and looking backward at, her (unresolved) dissolved marriage.


If you were never married or single, you would proceed in your relationship with others as an individual without “legal” encumbrances. Your decisions would involve only you, not someone else.

Again, I am talking psychologically here.

So, I said to my friend, you are a single woman, now and can act accordingly as you go forward.

I also explained, that she needed to resolve the “unresolved” issues which connected her to her marriage and that the Emotions as Tools Model would show her way to do this.

Label, validate, and Assess

The emotional process involves labelling your emotions so you know what they are, validating them so that you don’t deny or minimize them and assessing their message so you can decide whether they accurately reflect your initial perception of your situation.

The words she used to describe her situation and the emotions those words elicited….

In describing her “divorce”, my friend asserted (paraphrased)…

  • I screwed up and should have known better. (shame, guilt, regret)
  • He screwed up.m (anger)
  • Marriage sucks and I don’t want to hurt in the future. (anxiety)

We examined each of her assertions (perceptions) in terms of the “facts” including her actions and his actions, her strengths and weaknesses, who she is a person, etc.

Once the “issues” were addressed (resolution would come with time), the emotions subsided, she was able to acknowledge that she is, indeed, single and that moving on with her life now made sense to her.

The bottom line…

The takeaway here is that the words we use to describe the situations in which we find ourselves can be very powerful in their ability to elicit strong emotions which can negatively impact how we view ourselves and our situations as well as our ability to move forward in our lives.

In my next post, I will address the power of the word “stuck”.

Below, I have given some links to past posts which are relevant to this discussion.

It is important to note that you can access all of my past posts by clicking on the Index tab. When you do this, you will get a drop down menu with several categories for my posts.  Click on the category and you get a listing of all the posts in that category. Click on the post you want and the post will appear.

Note:  There are so many posts on anger, I suggest you click the anger category and pick the one that grabs your attention.

What is the difference between guilt and shame?

You Verses Your Anxiety: 3 Secrets and 4 Steps to turn Your Inner “doom sayer” into an inner “motivator”. Part 1

You Verses Your Anxiety: 3 Secrets and 4 Steps to turn Your Inner “doom sayer” into an inner “motivator”. Part 2: The 3 secrets.

You Verses Your Anxiety: 3 Secrets and 4 Steps to turn Your Inner “doom sayer” into an inner “motivator”. Part 3: The 4 steps.