When I started my own self-development journey (after reading No More Mr. Nice Guy by Dr. Robert Glover) and worked to make major changes to both my beliefs and behaviors, I was plagued by a feeling I didn’t expect: Guilt.
Now, having coached hundreds of men in both one-on-one and group settings, I have found that most of these men – particularly recovering Nice Guys – also experience the same feeling of guilt.
But there are actually two kinds of guilt: Healthy Guilt and Unhealthy Guilt. Unhealthy Guilt is sometimes referred to as neurotic guilt or toxic guilt.
In this article, we’ll take a brief look at Healthy Guilt vs. Unhealthy Guilt so you can distinguish between the two and let go of the guilt that isn’t serving you. Knowing how to figure out the difference can be essential to maintaining your emotional well-being.
WHAT IS HEALTHY GUILT?
Healthy guilt is just that. It’s healthy. It’s rational. It’s – as it is often called – appropriate guilt. It’s that feeling you get when you know you’ve done something wrong or when you know – without a doubt – that you’ve truly hurt someone.
Healthy Guilt is your conscience.
Responsible, caring people often feel guilty. They have a voice in their head that tells them they’ve done wrong, and they need to do better next time.
Healthy guilt is important.
When you experience healthy guilt, it means you do in fact have a conscience. It means you have empathy. It means you’re not a psychopath.
WHAT IS UNHEALTHY GUILT?
Unhealthy guilt on the other hand is guilt that results from telling yourself you’ve done something wrong when you haven’t done anything wrong at all.
Constantly suffering from Unhealthy Guilt may be the result of your childhood experience. For example, if your parents repeatedly blamed others – or made them responsible – for their problems, you may have developed an overly guilty conscience early on.
Or maybe during your childhood there was an adult in your life who was relentlessly critical of you. This may have caused you to develop a large degree of self-doubt and carry it with you into adulthood.
When you have unhealthy guilt, you tend to feel like you’re the cause of other people’s emotions or circumstances, even when you’re not the cause and have no control over the situation.
Again, Unhealthy Guilt is the constant feeling that you’ve done something wrong when you’ve actually done nothing wrong..
THE EFFECTS OF UNHEALTHY GUILT
Unhealthy Guilt has a host of negative effects and consequences – which is why it’s so unhealthy.
Constantly feeling responsible for other people’s feelings can lead to a level of neuroticism that becomes toxic. So, you can see why Unhealthy Guilt is also called neurotic guilt or toxic guilt.
Here are some of the most pernicious effects of Unhealthy Guilt:
- It can lead to excessive people-pleasing behavior. If you suffer from Unhealthy Guilt, you’re likely already a people-pleaser. But feeling like you’re the cause of other peoples’ problems can lead you to work even harder to solve their problems while sacrificing your own needs. This just leads to more suffering.
- It can exacerbate your toxic shame. Unhealthy Guilt can make you feel worse about yourself, and continually beat yourself up. This is especially harmful if you already feel like you’re not enough – which is the core of toxic shame.
- It can lead to depression. In fact, Unhealthy Guilt and depression often go hand-in-hand.
- It can prevent you from setting boundaries. Even though setting boundaries is an appropriate and healthy thing to do, Unhealthy Guilt can make you think that setting boundaries is mean or unloving.
GUILT & NICE GUY SYNDROME
Nice Guys in particular inaccurately internalized the beliefs that they aren’t good enough and that they need to do everything right. Nice Guys have crippling toxic shame and toxic perfectionism, which often results in Unhealthy Guilt.
Many men, particularly recovering Nice Guys, live with constant guilt, as if they are doing something wrong.
This is likely because becoming an Integrated Man requires you to stop pleasing others all the time and start doing things for yourself.
If you do something for yourself with no intent to harm anyone and someone gets hurt because you’re doing what you want instead of what they want, there’s no reason for you to feel guilty.
But Nice Guys have been employing their Nice Guy strategies for so long that once they stop they feel like they’re doing something wrong or that they’re hurting others.
Please know that you are not doing anything wrong by becoming an Integrated Man.
There’s no reason to feel guilty for:
- Making your own needs a priority
- Embracing your masculinity
- Embracing your sexuality
- Doing nice things for yourself
- Setting boundaries
- Setting goals and accomplishing them
- Anything else required to abolish your Nice Guy Syndrome and become an Integrated Man.
Becoming an Integrated Man means becoming more confident, more resilient, more loving, more honest, and more authentic.
Anyone who resents you for becoming an Integrated Man is likely someone you shouldn’t have in your life anyway.
LETTING GO OF UNHEALTHY GUILT
If Unhealthy Guilt is hard-wired into you – if you constantly feel like you’re the cause of other people’s problems – rest assured: This is something you can conquer.
Here are a few strategies for letting go of unhealthy guilt:
- Be mindful of the way you are feeling. Check your guilt. Ask yourself: Am I actually doing anything wrong here? Am I intentionally doing this to harm others? If you come to the conclusion that your guilt is rational, then own up to your behavior, make amends, and move on. But odds are your guilt is unhealthy, neurotic, and toxic.
- Talk to safe people. Hopefully you have a coach, a therapist, or a men’s group. Talk to these people about your guilt. More than likely, they’ll confirm that it’s Unhealthy Guilt.
- Step outside yourself. Imagine your best friend was having the same experience. What would you tell them?
- Practice setting boundaries. Don’t let anyone treat you badly. Boundaries are a hallmark of maturity. They can actually lead others into their own higher consciousness and into deeper connection with you.
And remember, we are all wounded, imperfect human beings. You are never going to do everything right. You are never going to do everything perfectly. We all mistakes.
As long as you’re conscious, your mistakes can only be learning experiences. And your guilt – healthy or unhealthy – can be a good thing. Particularly if you can distinguish between the two types of guilt and use your guilt to grow.
Tony Endelman is an author, blogger, entrepreneur, certified transformational life coach, certified No More Mr. Nice Guy Coach and the founder of The Integrated Man Cave.