Healthy guilt vs toxic guilt

Many of us feel guilt a lot of the time – at promises we’ve broken to others or ourselves, at things we’ve done or not done.

But there are two different kinds of guilt. One is healthy or appropriate guilt, in which we have behaved in a way that goes against our beliefs and values. With this kind of guilt we can usually acknowledge what we’ve done wrong, make amends and move on.

But there is another form of guilt that is unhealthy or toxic, in which we have done something that goes against the messages we got from someone else, often as a child.

There is also an overlap between feeling guilt and feeling shame and I will cover shame, which also has a healthy and a toxic side, in another post.

When it comes to guilt, if I am angry and shout at my wife I may feel healthy guilt afterwards because that action goes against one of my values, which is treating others with respect. I can then say sorry to my wife and take responsibility for not repeating the behaviour.

If I become angry with my wife and feel guilty that is likely to be an example of toxic guilt, possibly caused by getting the message as a child that I am bad if I feel angry.

 Judging feelings as good or bad

Much of the toxic guilt we feel is to do with having certain feelings, but I believe that there is no such thing as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ feeling – feelings are feelings and all human beings experience the full range of emotions. It is what we do with the feelings that is important.

So, if we notice we are feeling guilty about having certain feelings, such as anger, sexual desire or sadness, we may want to think about where we got the idea that having these feelings is ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’.

There is a lot of toxic guilt around feelings like anger, sexual desire and sadness, because many of us were brought up in families where one or more of these feelings were taboo. To gain love and approval from parents we may have learned to push these feelings aside, to repress them. Or, in the case of sexual feelings, to have fought against them.

These core beliefs, which are often unconscious, include: “I don’t have the right to feel or express anger”, “I must put a smile on my face and not feel sad” or “Feeling sexual desire is dirty.”


People who experience a lot of toxic guilt often feel that they must be perfect, that they are not allowed to make mistakes. Again, it is worth questioning where this belief came from. One possible source of the need to be perfect is the child who did not feel loved by his parents and so spends the rest of his life trying to make up for that by being perfect.

I would argue that these core beliefs that certain feelings are ‘wrong’ or that we are not allowed to be imperfect are not part of our intrinsic self but are external beliefs we have internalised, and that’s why they are linked to toxic guilt.

Psychotherapist David Richo, in How to be an Adult, argues that healthy guilt arises when we have stepped out of “our own truth”, the internal bodily wisdom that helps us distinguish experiences that actualise or do not actualise our potential.

Toxic guilt, on the other hand, is when we have disobeyed an injunction or command that was imposed on us. Unlike healthy guilt it is not lifted by acknowledgement and making amends but hangs around. It leads to an inner conflict, not balance.

As Richo says, it is probably impossible to get rid of all our toxic guilt, but what we can do is take a sceptical attitude when we feel this kind of guilt. We can allow it to be present but not let it dictate our behaviour and instead look beneath it at what negative self-beliefs we may be carrying around inside us and which do not really belong to us.





The danger of wanting to ‘fix’ our partner

2573762303_365ac020f8A common experience for the relationship therapist is when a couple arrives but only one of the partners is seen as having a problem.

This is known as the ‘fix-my-partner’ couple.

The ‘problem’ might be that the partner is depressed, has a sexual difficulty, gets angry or has had an affair.

The other partner will give the message that they have only come to support their mate with this issue, not because there is anything they could possibly need to look at in their own behaviour!

It immediately creates a one up/one down dynamic within the couple’s relationship, in which one partner seems to be more powerful than the other. The ‘victim’ partner may have come because they are compliant, feel guilty or agree that they are the one with the problem.

But they may also have a vague sense that it’s not quite as simple as that but they can’t quite say why.

A repair shop not couple therapy

Couple therapist and author Robert Taibbi says that he feels more like a repair shop than  a couple therapist in these situations. In his book Doing Couple Therapy he compares them to family therapy sessions where the parents literally drop off their 8-year-old ‘problem child’ and wait in the car outside.

My experience seeing couples is that things are rarely as simple as they seem at the beginning and that the issue being brought is always about the relationship dynamics between the two partners rather than a problem only one of them has.

While I will attend to the issue they are bringing – John’s depression or Jane’s lack of interest in sex – I am also interested in how they relate to each other and how this pattern may be creating or sustaining the problem.

One of the goals of the therapy, says Taibbi, is to enable the ‘one-down’ partner to voice his or her thoughts and feelings and to move out of the victim role. It is also important to encourage the ‘powerful’ partner to become curious about their role in what is going on and how their behaviour could actually be part of the problem.

Everything is relational

While seeing a couple I try to hold in my mind the concept that everything they are bringing is relational. In other words, an individual’s ‘problem’ is almost always reflecting something in the other partner.

This flows from the idea that we unconsciously seek out partners who, in certain key areas, reflect something we have disowned in ourselves. So, a depressed person may be attractive to someone who has disowned their own sadness or depression. Or a person with a sexual difficulty that prevents sexual intimacy may also be manifesting a fear of intimacy that the ‘powerful’ partner shares but is unaware of.

It is also striking how, when we get to know a little about the partners’ parents, we find out that the current dynamic is echoing something from the past. For example, Jane’s frustration with John’s depression mirrors her father’s annoyance at her mother’s sadness. Or John’s anger at her infidelities mirrors the many affairs his mother had.


Photo courtesy of Ed Yourdon at creative commons on