The Good News About Bad Behavior
Angela and Kenny intend to get married next year. At a recent office party, Angela flirted with Tom, the company salesman. Tom invited her back to his apartment where they made love. The next day, realizing her mistake, Angela became consumed by guilt. She berated herself mercilessly: “How could I do such a terrible thing to Kenny? I should never have gone to Tom's house in the first place, let alone sleep with him. I'm such a bitch!”
If we examine Angela’s guilt from an REBT perspective and apply Albert Ellis’s familiar ABC model, we get the following:
A: I’m engaged to Kenny, but I slept with Tom. B: I did a terrible thing.
I shouldn’t have done it.
I’m a bitch.
Many people would regard Angela’s guilt as appropriate and useful. They’d argue that her guilt serves as a form of self-discipline; in order to avoid guilt in the future, she’ll act in ways that are more consistent with her values. Without guilt, they argue, we’d have moral chaos with everyone doing as they please, without consideration for the consequences. But a close examination of guilt shows that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be:
- According to REBT theory, your guilt comes not from you actions but from the beliefs you have about your actions. Guilt is primarily a combination of demanding (“I shouldn’t have done it”), awfulizing (“I did a terrible thing”), and self-downing (“I’m a bad person”).
- When you feel guilty, you focus primarily on what a “bad person” you are. Instead of thinking about ways to undo the damage caused by your actions (or ways to avoid repeating your actions) you obsess about your “worthlessness.”
- The self-downing that lies at the heart of guilt is also a major cause of depression. By ruminating on what a “bad person” you are, you open the door to depression. Once you’re depressed, you’ll often make yourself more depressed by telling yourself, “it’s awful to be depressed. I can’t stand it.”
- Guilt is such an unpleasant feeling that you’ll do anything to avoid it, including failing to own up to your actions. Instead of honestly admitting your errors, you’ll deny them so that you – and others – will have no cause to look down on you.
- Feeling guilty about something you did in the past robs you of any pleasure you might otherwise find in the present. Instead of enjoying this moment, you dwell on the “terrible” thing that you “shouldn’t” have done.
- Your feelings of guilt lead you to overcompensate for your wrongdoing. You become obsequious and unassertive as you try to prove to everyone — including yourself—that you are not a “bad person” but are, in fact, a “good person.”
- Others will take advantage of you and try to manipulate you with guilt. They’ll scold you or sulk until you realize that — once again — you’ve done something that makes you a “bad person,” and that you’d better change your ways and do what they want.
- Because you see yourself as a “bad person,” you’ll act in ways that reflect your view of yourself. You’ll do what you can to live up to your label.
Guilt, then, seems hardly worth the candle. The claims made by those who say guilt is good for you don’t stack up. Guilt, rather than driving you to improve your behavior, may actually make it worse.
If, as REBT theory states, guilt is a result of views, what can you do about it? The REBT solution is to change your feelings of guilt into feelings of regret, so that you shift your focus away from yourself and on to your actions. The first step to making this switch is to examine and challenge the beliefs — your demanding, awfulizing, and self-downing — that cause you to feel guilty.
Demands are usually expressed as should, must, ought to, have to, got to, or need to, etc. Angela’s belief that “I shouldn’t have done it” is an example of a demand. At first glance, demands seem innocuous, but closer inspection reveals their irrational nature. They are unrealistic, illogical, and unhelpful.
- Regardless of what you have done, there is no law of the universe that says you shouldn’t have done it. As far as we can tell, there are no universal laws directing human conduct.
- By demanding that you — or, for that matter, others — act in certain ways, you set yourself up as “Ruler of the Universe.” You may wish that you’d behaved differently, but by turning your wish into a demand, you claim God-like powers that you clearly don’t have.
- The claim that something shouldn’t have happened, when it already has, is a contradiction. If it were true that you really must not act in certain ways, then it would be impossible for you to do so — the law of the universe would prevent it. But you have acted wrongfully. On the one hand you are saying “I cannot act wrongfully (because the law of the universe forbids it),” while on the other hand, you are saying, “I can (and have) acted wrongfully.”
- When you demand that you act morally, you make yourself unnecessarily anxious. Being a fallible human being, you will inevitably act wrongfully from time to time. But if you demand that you mustn’t act that way, you’ll become forever fearful of breaking your own commandment.
It is appropriate and helpful to do what you can to avoid acting in ways you regard as immoral. But it makes no sense at all to tell yourself that you must act morally, at all times, under all conditions.
Rating your actions as good or bad can be an effective way of making sure you remain on task to achieve your goals. In the case of Angela, her goal of having a long, loving relationship with Kenny is jeopardized by her one-night fling with Tom. It is appropriate for her to regret her actions and to consider them “bad.” But when she calls them “terrible,” she exaggerates their undesirability.
Labeling your wrongful actions as awful or terrible might seem accurate, but the apparent accuracy is an illusion.
- When you rate your behavior as “terrible,” you not only say it is “bad,” but you go further and imply it is as bad as it could possibly be; it couldn’t be worse. Awfulizing turns your disappointing behavior into a disaster — a fate worse than death.
- Awfulizing is related to demanding. When you believe your behavior is awful, then you also believe you should not have acted that way.
- On a scale of badness that stretches from 1 to 100, awful and terrible rate as 101 or more — an obviously impossible state of affairs.
- Awfulizing will often interfere with your desire to correct your behavior. You’ll be so focused on how awfully you acted that you won’t have the mental energy to look for solutions. When you regard your actions as terrible, you’ll come to believe there is no way to change them.
By calling herself a bitch, Angela rates not only her behavior, but her entire self. She sees herself as no good, as worthless. Self-downing is a major feature of guilt and depression. Is it worth it?
- When you put your entire self down for something you have done, you are overgeneralizing. In effect, you are saying “this small part of me (my behavior), is the same as all of me. Because part of me is bad, all of me is bad.”
- If you truly were a “bad person” then it would be impossible for you to ever act morally. Once a “bad person,” always a “bad person.”
- Like most people, you will act ethically much of the time, and — because you are human — unethically from time to time. When you equate your self with your actions, your self-worth goes up and down like a yoyo.
- By rating yourself as “bad,” you imply that there is a universally accepted way of rating people. But no such system exists. The standards by which we rate people’s behavior vary from place to place, and from era to era.
- By seeing yourself as a “bad person,” you will want to punish yourself for being so “bad.” You will then act in ways that are self-harming.
Demanding, awfulizing, and self-downing are the root of all guilt. By adopting flexible, realistic, and self-accepting attitudes, you can let go of self-defeating guilt, and replace it with self-helping regret.
From Guilt to Regret
To replace your guilt with regret, you had better modify your beliefs. The most efficient way of doing that is to question them. Ask yourself:
- While I’d very much prefer to act morally, why must I act morally all the time?
- Granted that acting wrongfully leads to poor results, what makes it awful?
- Just because I acted badly, how does that make me a “bad person”?
- Instead of focusing on yourself, focus on your actions. Ask yourself, “Can I undo the harm I have created? If so, how?” If you can’t undo the harm, ask yourself, “How can I avoid repeating those actions?”
- Take responsibility for your actions. Instead of denying them, or blowing them out of all proportion, acknowledge that you acted wrongfully, but don’t beat yourself up over it.
- Develop some rational coping statements:
- I wish I had acted differently, but there is no law of the universe that says I must act differently.
- My actions were wrong, but they were not awful.
- I acted badly, but I am not a bad person.
Replacing your feelings of guilt with a feeling of regret gives you a number of advantages:
- You can work on changing your behavior.
- You can avoid unnecessary bouts of depression.
- You don’t put yourself at the mercy of those who would seek to manipulate you with guilt.
- You don’t have to act unassertively. Instead, you can be yourself.
Feeling guilty is a common reaction when we think we’ve acted badly, but it needn’t be this way. The faulty thinking that creates your guilt is a habit, and like all habits, it can be broken if you are vigilant and persistent. If you take care not to act wrongfully, but accept yourself unconditionally, you will never need to feel guilty. And that is the good news about bad behavior.
About The Author:
Will Ross — is the webmaster and co-founder of REBTnetwork.org; he tutors REBT self-helpers and is the author and publisher of online REBT self-help materials.