Guilt, Freedom, and Good Choices at Work

The last thing people want is a guilt trip. Guilt is like an ethical party crasher that you wish would go away. Even hearing the word “guilt” conjures up negative feelings. But before you dismiss guilt as all bad, take a minute to think about the useful role it plays in helping you make your ethical decisions.

For the most part, guilt gets a bad rap. “Don’t lay a guilt trip on me!” “Oh, you’re guilty all right.” “I feel overwhelmed by guilt.” You may hear these statements from someone else or you hear them in your head like a bad movie rerun. Guilt can be an overwhelming negative influence in your life if you don’t have perspective on it. By understanding what guilt is and learning its appropriate function, you may actually walk away feeling better about yourself and more secure in your character.

Understand that guilt is perfectly normal. Everyone feels it. Unless you are a psychopath (that is someone who does not feel guilt) you can and should feel a level of guilt when you do something wrong. If you break a rule that our society holds dear, your conscience reminds you with a feeling of guilt. It keeps you in touch with your feelings and your inner standards of right and wrong. This should serve as a healthy warning. Your response to guilt should be to recognize why you are feeling that way and change your behavior accordingly.

It may sound corny, but guilt is your friend. The result of being in touch with your guilt leads you toward feelings of security and freedom rather than oppression. It works in the opposite the way most people perceive it. It provides you a way of self-regulating your behavior so you don’t have to rely solely on the fear of getting caught in order to do right. A healthy society and productive workplace must have people who can regulate their own behavior intrinsically out of good conscience. When guilt is doing its job, people don’t need to have a supervisor watching their every move because they know their ethical boundaries.

The workplace is full of ethical decisions that hinge solely on the conscience of the individual: following the rules, using company equipment for personal use, personal versus company time, following through on commitments, and more. Even in a closely supervised environment, there are ample opportunities for independent ethical choices. You need more than the fear of getting caught to keep you on the straight and narrow. When the feeling of guilt surfaces as an ethical safety check, it is doing its job. That’s the way it should be. It’s not the boss who is keeping you honest but yourself.


On the other hand, guilt can be a painful and destructive thing if you end up “living in guilt.” There is a huge difference between someone who feels guilty about wrongdoing and someone who lives in guilt. Rather than using our own good judgment to make ethical decisions, we use guilt like a prison whose walls are made of fear, shame and remorse. Living in guilt happens when the feeling of guilt doesn’t stop after the ethical crisis but continues to haunt you long afterward. It should be allowed to do its job to bring you back in line and then fade back to its vigilant, active place in your subconscious.

The temptation for many is to try so hard to avoid living in guilt that we ignore its existence altogether. We are not full-fledge psychopaths but we can somehow easily turn the guilt switch off and on when we need to. Flipping the switch may be just as dangerous as living in guilt. By ignoring your guilt, you run the risk of living your entire life in a muddy, ethical fog. Be aware of this subtle, erosion of your conscience and principles. If this becomes your standard operating procedure for dealing with ethical dilemmas, your ability to distinguish right from wrong will be diluted and confused.

Learn to keep good balance and clear perspective regarding guilt. A healthy dose of guilt at the right time may be exactly what you need to stay honest. You need it. Understand that whatever sting the pang of guilt brings, it will be worth it in the end. Guilt will help you know yourself better. You will be more secure in your principles and decisions. Learning to know your ethical boundaries along your journey to good ethics will be well worth the guilt trip.