Does Feeling Guilt Make Us a Better Person?

And yet, I actually do find myself stopping at an employee’s desk to say ‘thank you’. I keep a stack of note cards on my desk that I use to write acknowledgements to people for the extra things they do. But, I know it doesn’t happen EVERY time someone does something special. And that is when I sometimes feel guilt.

Why? Why, when I reflect on my actions, does it sometimes turn into this uncomfortable feeling of regret? Here’s what I’ve come up with so far …

In public education we are almost entirely focused on people. We are less about producing ‘stuff’ and more about empowering others — students, teachers, support staff, administrators and managers. We build people. We build futures.

Personal acknowledgement is a simple way that can reaffirm that our employees matter to the success of our endeavour. When I miss an opportunity to do that I miss out on building community.

Maybe that’s it.

So, the problem actually rests in my inability to thank EVERYBODY … ALL of the time. And even if I could somehow find a way or time to do that would it appear genuine?

And if that isn’t enough of a downer, here’s some additional information on the physiological effects of guilt. Feeling an inordinate amount of guilt has been linked to a variety of physical ailments due to the release of stress chemicals. Stress can translate into:

  • headaches & backaches
  • cardiovascular disease
  • gastrointestinal disorders
  • compromised immune systems
  • contribution to depression, anxiety & negative feelings of self worth

Counteracting the effects of guilt means finding a way to reduce the feelings of guilt. Here is a sampling of what some research says on the way to combat the negative energy that can result from guilt:

  1. It is What It is! Accept what has happened. You can’t turn back time — look forward for opportunities that can make a positive difference.
  2. Learn to Accept Reasonable Limits. We can always do more, but there will be a level where we are unable to maintain expectations. Assess whether your goals are your own or someone else’s that can’t be met.
  3. Keep Proper Perspective. If you forgot to acknowledge someone, can you go back and do so now? Have you thanked them in past? How big of an issue does it really represent?
  4. Apologize. If you’ve done wrong and can help make things better by acknowledging your error to others then it’s probably the right thing to do.

Guilt CAN be both a negative and a positive stressor — it’s up to us how we shape it to be a powerful motivator for improvement. For me, I focus on these ideas:

Remember to Celebrate

Mistakes happen — don’t dwell on them but re-frame them with a focus on the future.

Remember to celebrate your victories — there are lots of those to see.

2 thoughts on “Does Feeling Guilt Make Us a Better Person?

  1. Dave, thanks very much for this. As a student of leadership, your post got me thinking, and so I had a very quick look at recent academic publications dealing with expressing thanks or gratitude in the workplace and genuineness, given your leadership role there.

    As you might imagine, I found many different pieces. This recent master’s thesis is one that I intend to read later today, so I thought I’d share it with you…it compares popular non-academic ideas out there to what the research says. Here’s the link: &isAllowed=y

    Have a great day!

    Thanks again,



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s