Can Guilt be Productive?

I think so.

In Christianity there is this idea that there is productive guilt (“guilt that leads to repentance”) and unproductive guilt (leads to despair and is often even wallowed in as a way to avoid having to make any change…we can do whatever lazy thing we want, as long as we feel really, really bad about it and ourselves). Unproductive guilt should be released, as it changes nothing and helps no one.

Or, to give credit precisely where it’s due,
“Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. ” 2 Corinthians 7:10

There are many different ways to express despair over the lifestyle we have here, and the choices we make (or don’t make).

Green Guilt.

Mommy Guilt.

Daddy Guilt.

White Guilt.

First World Guilt.

The list goes on and on. I am thinking about this because this blogger that I like to read, Beth Terry of My Plastic Free Life, posted a link on Facebook to an article detailing all the different things that parents feel bad about doing to the planet. Their conclusion seemed to be that nearly everyone (94% of parents) has some level of guilt for the choices they make as parents.

At first glance, it doesn’t seem like such a huge thing to be under…a little twinge when you throw out a plastic diaper, maybe a moment of regret at the register as you realize you forgot the reusable bags again…but these little twinges add up and can actually form an invisible barrier between you and whatever change you would make. Well, it’s just one more diaper. Besides, how many diapers have I thrown away this year? Oh…I know this is the wrong thing. I really should change it. But really, it’s just one diaper. And I’m so tired. Maybe next time. Ugh. I should do it this time. But I didn’t last time. I felt guilty then too. And look how pointless that turned out to be? And it’s really just one more diaper….


It’s insidious, really. The pointless guilt (worldly sorrow, for you Christianity-inclined lot) often comes trailing along behind a kernel of truly productive guilt, which is a real and helpful reaction (like its fear counterpart…people who see a wild animal running angrily toward them in the woods and don’t have an instantaneous adrenal response are probably more likely to get mauled) to recognizing something in ourselves or our lives that needs to change. We have a flash, just a moment, where we could change. But as we waver, all our past failure to progress comes rushing in around like a smotheringly comforting blankie to remind us that we really aren’t capable of change, poor dears that we are, so why even bother? We are left with our feelings of guilt, because we can’t let go of that (what are we, heartless? Think of the drowning polar bears! The sweat shops! The pesticides! No, we must hold on to our guilt, because we owe them that.)

This, people, is no way to live. 

When it comes to my attention that something needs to change, I try to really sit with it for a while. I find out as much information as I can, talk with respected friends (of differing opinions, if I can), and when I feel like I have gathered all the information, I move forward in the direction I choose. There is no room in this method for false guilt. I do the best I can with the information available to me.

Guess what? So do you. 

If there’s something you’re feeling guilt about, and have been for years, why? What’s the point? Is it something that you should change? If so, step out in freedom to change. If it doesn’t work, at least you tried! If you really can’t change it, or thoughtfully decide not to, then your guilt helps no one. Not the polar bears. Not the sweat shop workers. Not even your kids. Least of all you.

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3 thoughts on “Can Guilt be Productive?

  1. Hear, hear! I’ve been feeling guilty about wasting energy by leaving on all the lights my two-year-old needs, but can’t reach. We can’t have her falling down the stairs in the dark or not making it to the potty, so I think we’ll go buy some fancy expensive LED bulbs and call it a day.

  2. Hey! Would you mind if I share your blog with my facebook group?
    There’s a lot of folks that I think would really appreciate your content.
    Please let me know. Many thanks

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