Is Guilt a Good Motivator?

08/25/2012 11:00 am ET | Updated Oct 24, 2012

I recently had one of those "ah-ha" moments as I was walking down the street mumbling to myself about what a terrible human I am for reacting in a way that I wish I hadn't. Feeling horrible and wanting relief, I was searching my mind for all the self-help guru suggestions while repeating a few positive affirmations meant to "redirect my energies" (you know the drill) when suddenly the simplest thought squeezed between the chem. trail of (spiritual-sounding but ultimately) judgments (that were suppose to prove I was a good person).

Has guilt ever lead me to being a better person? The answer was so clear.... NO, it actually hadn't. I felt a surge of relief. It was in that moment I had permission to stop feeling bad. My body immediately relaxed. What was feeling guilty really going to accomplish anyway? Isn't it just a backwards way of trying to prove I care?

Am I a happier person, a kinder mother, a more loving friend or a more compassionate companion due to guilt? Has guilt lead to creating a new me?

Okay, sure. I've probably made a few small shifts and well-meaning apologies but in truth, have I actually changed any undesirable aspects of myself due to guilt? Any changes I may have experienced were most definitely short-term. Any behaviors I have transformed were due to my desire to create something new and that desire was what motivated me, whereas guilt merely haunted me.

I can see where our society has inadvertently believed that guilt was good. That it has seemingly lead to actions that have in turn helped me believe I was in fact, an okay gal. But there's a difference between being motivated by guilt (taking actions that are usually short-term or that backfire) and learning from guilt (gaining self-knowledge that leads to new choices).

At its best, guilt can help me understand where I'd like to make changes. It provides clarity as to what is or is not working regarding certain behaviors (which at their core are just habits) I can then take that information and use it as the impetus to learn, speak and act in ways that are more in alignment to my true desires.

If guilt is my motivator, others will feel it. There's a good chance their responses to me will match my unconscious motivations. My daughter has been a great teacher in this area. When I do something because I want to make up for something I'm feeling guilty about, she's usually not too receptive. At best I get a grunt in return, but what usually occurs is she outright refuses my gesture, I feel hurt and react, and then guess what happens? Guilt wins again (nice repetitive pattern I've got going here)! She's not buying my guilt-based actions/words, often she refuses to let me "fix it" and why should she? Since they're all about bringing me relief... not her.

Guilt is lame as a motivator. Action derived from my desire to be more understanding and caring of her is quite different from decisions that are direct descendants of guilt. Guilt can show me something is "off," but that's the end of its usefulness.

Consider your guilt-induced actions and decide if you're demonstrating care or building some unhealthy cyclical pattern in your relationships?

When you're willing to listen and not speak from guilt, not react from guilt, not accept guilt, but come from a willingness to understand what the other person is feeling, your power to authentically care for the other person arises.

No one wants you to feel bad, really. What they want is your care. They want you to know they're hurting. You can only support them in understanding that there is pain there and your actions may have awakened it and your love and support can help them release it, whereas your guilt may only perpetuate a cycle of blame, guilt and temporary relief.

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