Guilt as a Motivational Tool

When I first started law school (at the University of Illinois), they held a session for the beginning students to get them used to the rigorous academic demands they were about to face. They had passed out a 35-page case in advance we were supposed to read and be prepared to discuss. Sometime during the presentation, one of the deans making the presentation made the point that guilt isn’t always a bad thing, that in moderation a little guilt can serve to motivate.

I don’t think I had ever thought about it that way before. Certainly he was correct; guilt has the potential to serve as a motivational tool, and we see it plied from time to time in both school and work settings. And in the Church, for that matter.

My sense, however, is that we have a tendency to overuse this particular tool in church life. We have a tendency to pull this particular item out of the toolkit much more often than we should. Because if a little guilt judiciously applied has the potential to motivate, a lot of guilt indiscriminately applied has the potential to be debilitating, to make people throw up their hands and perhaps even withdraw.

I’ll be honest with you–I tend not to react well to efforts to manipulate me with guilt trips. In fact, it is unlikely that I would ever leave the Church over the kinds of issues anti-Mormons raise. I already know where all the bodies are buried. If I were ever to leave the Church, for me it would more likely be a case of one straw of guilt too many attempted to be loaded on to my camel’s back.

So now that our orgy of conference-driven commentary is over, I’m curious what others think about this subject, and I would like to hear your stories about the use of guilt in the Church, both positive and negative. When does it work? When does it backfire? Your stories, please.


  1. You mean to tell me that if I go watch that R-rated movie I’ve been meaning to watch, I won’t actually lose out on one of the rooms in my mansion in the afterlife?

  2. I’m reminded of the scene in “A Christmas Story” when Ralphie’s teacher (Mrs. Shields) is unable to identify those who “put Flick up” to sticking his tongue to the flagpole. She tries a couple of times to get the get the guilty parties to confess, but she is unsuccessful. Then, as a last resort….she tries to put Ralphie and the others on a guilt trip. Of course…..they see it for what it is – a much better alternative than being named as flagpole instigators.

    I try to be like Ralphie and the other instigators….not allowing myself to be influenced by the Mrs. Shields’ of the world. For me, guilt is too often used as a manipulation tactic and life is too short to feel guilty all the time. And, I can’t really imagine the Savior using guilt or any other type of manipulation to bring people to him.

    I would add that godly sorrow is not guilt…..

  3. Kevin, personally, it doesn’t work much with me because I just don’t feel guilt much – which is both a blessing and a curse. It means I don’t get bogged down with debilitating depression brought on by guilt, but it also means I don’t repent as easily or actively as I would like.

    Otoh, I know plenty of people for whom being compelled to be humble is absolutely necessary – and guilt is about the only motivator for them. I also know others who need encouragement – those for whom guilt trips simply are inappropriate and counterproductive. The key, imo, is to know the needs of each person and give them what they need. That is next to impossible for large groups, so usually both are provided – just like Sister Beck’s and Elder Oaks’ talks during this conference. (PLEASE, let’s not go off on these specific talks. I only use them as an example of complementary talks that appeal to different people with different needs.)

  4. Oops! one too many “get”s…sorry! Gosh, I feel so guilty about not proofing that better :)

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    I will admit that my post was inspired by the reaction to President Beck’s talk, but I wanted to talk about guilt more generally rather than that talk specifically. So specific commentary on the talk should go to Kristine’s thread, and general commentary on guilt itself may go here.

    Excellent use of A Christmas Story, adcama!

  6. Eric Russell says:

    Interesting post, Kevin. Before people get going, could we first define guilt and the “guilt-trip”? It seems to me that any admonition that constitutes a set of actions that we are not complying with constitutes a guilt-inducing event. This is, of course, a good thing. It is the ability to feel guilt (i.e. the sting of conscience) that makes us human. And it is guilt that allows us to progress, otherwise we would remain animals.

    But then, it seems to me that you are speaking of something different, perhaps a heavy-handedness in that admonition? What exactly differentiates the “guilt-trip” from the non-guilt trip?

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    I had one companion on my mission who was absolutely debilitated by guilt. I had a much greater capacity to let it roll off my shoulders, and I tried mightily to reassure him that he wasn’t pond scum for being unable to meet every jot and tittle of missionary expectation, but to little avail. I actually worried he might do himself a harm. He would mutter to himself regularly and just emotionally beat himself up for not being the best and brightest a missionary can be. The smallest lapse from absolute perfection left him distraught and hating himself.

    A mission is a cauldron of guilt, but different people have different capacities to absorb it. In that companion’s case, it was potentially dangerous (although he never actually harmed himself to my knowledge).

  8. Eric Russell says:

    I see, Kevin, but I would disagree that what your companion experienced was guilt itself. Guilt is simply an awareness of the gap between who we are and who we ought to be. How we respond to that awareness is another thing entirely. It appears your companion chose to respond with self-pity, but surely that choice was not the fault of guilt itself.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Eric, you are of course right that guilt can be a necessary and good thing. That is one of the premises of the post. I am basically asking for the ruminations of others where the line is between valuable guilt and debilitating guilt.

    In Richard Dutcher’s States of Grace, a missionary sleeps with a neighbor woman, and feels tremendous guilt as a result. Guilt might have been a good thing had it prevented him from having sex with the woman, or spurred him to repentance after having done so. In this particular case, the young elder remembered the words of his father that he would rather he come home in a coffin than dishonorably, so he tries to kill himself.

    So I don’t know how to answer the question; in this case, the guilt might have been a positive thing, but in reality turned out to be debilitating, almost costing the young man his life.

    It strikes me as a difficult issue, which is why I am soliciting the thoughts of the ‘Nacle.

  10. I used to be consumed and controlled by guilt. It took me 40 years to see guilt initiated by others as manipulation. Now I have gone overboard the other way and cannot be guilt-tripped even when necessary. Instead of guilt over what I have not done I have pride in what I HAVE done. Since too much pride is not a virtue, I will be needing a little guilt to counter-balance it and improve my behavior. Luckily, people in my life who would supply it are oh so easy to find, but I am too proud and too smart to ask them for help! Perhaps some of you know of some general guilt that will help so that I do not have to seek out any specific guilt.

    He that is conscious of guilt cannot bear the innocence of others: So they will try to reduce all others to their own level.

    ~Charles James Fox~

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    Eric, just to be clear, my number 7 was not a response to your no. 6; I posted that before I saw your six. My number 9 was intended to respond to your no. 6 (without having seen your no. 8).

    So if the conversation seems a little disjointed, we were posting at almost the same time, so that is why.

  12. I am a Bishop of a YSA ward and spend much of my time counselling with people about this issue. I believe that guilt serves one limited purpose. It is a wake call, a slap in the face when we do something wrong. But once it has served that purpose, it should be shed. Guilt is not a motivator. When somebody has come to see me, or has turned to God in private prayer, guilt no longer serves any purpose. People are far more likely to improve their lives when they believe that they are good people then when they are consumed by guilt.

  13. Excellent, Gary. Thanks for the perspective.

  14. I don’t find that “guilt-trips” evoke any guilt in me. I feel guilt as a pang of distress, followed by something like a frightened hunger. Guilt for me comes from a spontaneous awareness of something I’ve done wrong. I don’t enjoy the feeling, and I’m not interested in feeling it often, but I think it does serve a purpose at times.

  15. I have a personality flaw. I’ve done wrong things I’m not proud of because someone tried to guilt me into doing the right thing. My only reason was not wanting to be manipulated. I had to learn to do the right thing despite my desire to kick back at the guilt trip. For me and others like me, guilt is a very, very poor motivator.

    I’ve actually heard a number of times in church that guilty feelings are not good. Don’t let guilty feelings make you feel unworthy of redemption through Jesus Christ. That is something Satan would want you to do. I’ve even heard it put in a way that made some people feel guilty about feeling guilty. Go figure.

  16. Tanya Spackman says:

    Guilt trips tend to make me feel quite guilty, but no action tends to come from that guilt. I merely become consumed by guilt, knowing I am an inadequate human being who doesn’t deserve to live. I really need to get a grip, obviously.

  17. I can think of two examples where guilt is often used in the church, and I think probably misused.

    The first is in the MTC. You all probably know what I am talking about. It seems early in your sojourn at the MTC someone is assigned to give a talk that basically says that if you know of anything that you or someone else has done that has not been properly confessed, you have the obligation to report it or your mission will be a failure. This usually results in a rash of tortured confessions over fairly trivial (and, infrequently, some serious) matters. I think it is manipulative and wrong, and resulted in a lot of weird stuff happening in my MTC district which we all could have easily done without.

    The second is hometeaching. IMO, if you are not motivated to do your hometeaching out of sincere concern for your families, don’t do it out of guilt. Stay home, you won’t do any good anyway.

  18. Yes, the Church suffers from an oversupply of guilt. I’m sure most LDS leaders do a much better job deflating member guilt in one-on-one interviews and counseling. But it seems to be much harder for leaders to abandon guilt rhetoric in their public talks.

    Somehow the large gap between how leaders deal with guilt in interviews (where they generally lend support and encouragement to even those involved in serious sin) and how they sometimes employ guilt in public talks needs to be narrowed. I think it is a much bigger problem than is generally admitted. Even if people only think leaders play the guilt card way too often, it is still a problem. At some level, perception is reality in this context. And for some people, the perception is that guilt is the primary tool in the LDS leadership toolkit.

    And it is worth pointing out that a talk or two by leaders decrying the use of guilt as a motivational tool doesn’t solve the problem, it confirms it. If it wasn’t a problem, they wouldn’t be speaking out against it.

  19. FWIW, in his Oct. 2006 general conference talk, “O Be Wise,” Elder Ballard gave this advice regarding the use of guilt as a motivational tool:

    “[E]liminate guilt. I hope it goes without saying that guilt is not a proper motivational technique for leaders and teachers of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We must always motivate through love and sincere appreciation, not by creating guilt.”

    This was one of the best talks of that conference weekend, if you ask me, but to this day, I haven’t once heard it referenced (or seen it applied) in church.

  20. Although, I should note that Elder Oaks (I think it was him, anyway) did quote from another part of Elder Ballard’s talk yesterday. So, I guess I’ve heard the talk referenced once in church.

  21. I think that the use of guilt as a motivational tool is a result of theological confusion. The divine tool for change is the Holy Spirit, and people seeking to produce religious change ought to create environments that enable the influence of that Spirit. Guilt, stress, pressure, checklists, and other such techniques are workarounds that take advantage of known features of human cognition and affect to produce some degree of behavioral change when the Spirit is not trusted to do the whole job.

    Most fundamentally, guilt really requires clinging to our sins and making them our own — not giving them over to Jesus Christ as we are supposed to do in order to activate the atonement. Using guilt as a motivational tool thus presupposes a lack of knowledge about the efficacy of the Holy Spirit and a lack of understanding of the atonement. If these misunderstandings are corrected, I think the use of the guilt trip will fade away.

  22. There is definitely a proper use of guilt as a motivational tool. I think if we state proper and correct principals, and then people feel bad, we are not trying to create guilt. Julie Beck wasn’t trying to creat guilt.

    To blame the dad in “States of Grace” is stupid, IMO. What he said may have been over the top rhetoric, but it is not impossible to go be clean and pure and not sleep with the neighbor as a missionary. The son can try to use it as an excuse to justify his behavior, but it is not the source of his guilt.

    Also, I think it is completely appropriate to communicate disappointment and an error not to. Some react to this with an ad hominem attack of calling such a person a “guilt tripper” but honest communication is necassary do that expectations can be appropriately set, clearly understood, and then met.

  23. I think that JNS is right. We don’t believe our own doctrine. God loved us while we were sinners, and we respond to his love by loving him which of course induces a change in our way of thinking and acting.

    And I agree with Dave that our private counselling is often at odds with our public rhetoric. Joseph Smith’s statement that “I teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves” may be simultaneously the most quoted and the most ignored statement he ever made. We are too often afraid of what people will do with their agency, so we try to manipulate them with guilt trips. I often see my job as undoing the damage done by well meaning parents and leaders who have instilled powerful and debilitating feelings of guilt and shame in our youth.

  24. JNS, # 21,

    I also think that you are right. Elder Oaks talk about “good, better, best” alluded to that with the analogy that giving a “good” lesson means being prepared, while “best” seeks to change lives. At least, as much as I can recall from being somewhat sleep impaired at that point. Guilt is a limited use motivator, best self-imposed if used at all.

  25. To blame the dad in “States of Grace” is stupid, IMO. What he said may have been over the top rhetoric, but it is not impossible to go be clean and pure and not sleep with the neighbor as a missionary. The son can try to use it as an excuse to justify his behavior, but it is not the source of his guilt.

    Missing the point, Matt. No one said it was impossible to stay away from the neighbor girl, or that his dad’s words were the reason he had sex. The only point of bringing up this movie was, I believe, that the dad’s words made him feel so guilty about his behavior that, instead of motivating him to repentance they motivated him to suicide. That’s not good guilt, by anyone’s definition.

    This could be the subject of a post all by itself, but I think we should always avoid saying things like the dad said in this movie. Death is never preferable to sin if we believe in the atonement.

  26. Chris Laurence says:

    When dealing with guilt, I think it’s important to have the proper tools available. In the “States of Grace” case, the father gave his son the wrong tool to deal with the guilt. Thus, rather than turn to Christ’s atonement, he attempted suicide.

    Elder Perry mentioned missionary stress in his talk in Priesthood Session, and said missionaries cannot turn to their usual stress-reducers of music, movies, video games, internet. I assume they are to turn to the scriptures and prayer as stress-reducers. I feel that the tools remain inadequate, thus, the heavy guilt load carried by missionaries.

    I watch this with my small children. If I have not equipped them with the appropriate mechanisms by which they can deal with stress and/or guilt, I can anticipate frustration, explosions, meltdowns, and so forth. Adults, including missionaries, express these same frustrations in different manners than my small children do, but we still feel them just the same. I feel that we need to do more to equip ourselves with the appropriate mechanisms for dealing with guilt. Some of it has to do with knowing what to truly feel guilty about, and some has to do with how to utilize Christ’s atonement in any given situation.

  27. I used to be plagued by guilt, the mission was one of the most difficult and dark times of my life. I found the idea that I was walking past so many homes and not preaching the gospel to everyone almost debilitating (as I felt responsible for everyone’s salvation; yes I had that first-born messiah complex).

    About five years ago (at age 26) after reading Terry Warner’s book “Bonds that make us free” and participating in seminars founded on Warner’s paradigm (Arbinger Institute) I was freed from guilt. My ability to live and let live as well as forget myself has greatly increased. Being hurt by others is by no means the greatest pain I experience in life, generally it is my self-victimization that creates the angst. I can actually say that though I feel regret for sin and desires to repent, I haven’t felt guilt for years. Repentance is more about becoming a loving and happy person than any fear based ideas I may have had. I also am much more comfortable in my concept of God and his love for me. I am persuaded that the book “The Peacegiver” provides a good example of the Savior’s love for me.

    I am hopeful that those that do not feel “good enough” will also feel the peace that I have felt (for the most part) over the last few years.

  28. Steve M — Thanks for mentioning that talk by Ballard. I went to read it, and it is quite powerful and serves as a good complement to what Elder Oaks had to say yesterday. It can be found here.

  29. MCQ, I think you misunderstood me.

    the dad’s words made him feel so guilty about his behavior that, instead of motivating him to repentance they motivated him to suicide.

    I don’t believe this. I think the sexual act made him feel guilty. The dad’s words didn’t help, but he only used those words to justify(speaking of Terry Warner) his already built in desire to take the quick and easy way out of his situation, just as he had done when offered sex in the first place. If his father’s words had that great of an impact on him of themselves, he wouldn’t have had sex to begin with.

    I do not believe the character in SOG was shown in any way to be unaccountable for his own actions.

  30. Stupid was, in any case, too strong of a word.

  31. Guilt doesn’t often cause a change in behavior. That is, somebody who doesn’t go home/visiting teaching is not any more likely to go because they feel guilty about it. They’re just more likely to feel guilty. Since guilt doesn’t actually change behavior often, it’s probably not a good motivator most of the time.

    The only thing guilt has ever done for me is to give me a really big stick to beat myself with. Thankfully, with a little age comes a little wisdom, and I put that stick down long ago.

  32. StillConfused says:

    Want to see some interesting guilt, enter the dating world as a “mid-single.” Things happen; there is guilt; things happen; there is guilt. An endless cycle. But apparently the guilt is not enought to change the offending behavior. I don’t really “get” guilt. But it is definitely interesting to watch people on the guilt train.

  33. #19 Steve M: Our stake pres used Elder Ballard’s “O Be Wise” talk as the basis for his message at our next stake conference adult session (about 4 months after Gen Conf). He felt so strongly about it that he emphatically counseled us to go home and re-read and ponder this talk. I agree it could be referenced more often, but it has been done — with great effect and power.

    As far as guilt: Mine comes from within, not from external sources. I don’t need anyone else to “beat me up” about what I am/am not doing… I do that on my own! It isn’t anything major, just a sense of perfectionism. I struggle to balance the knowledge that nobody is perfect in all things at all times, with the realization that I still seem to act/feel as if I somehow “should” be able to do it “all.” Guilt doesn’t motivate me; it makes me feel inadequate. However, I am better than I used to be. Christ offers hope to all of us!

  34. Chris Laurence says:

    #27 Kent, that is a great success story. I would like to see a psychologist write a book specifically for missionaries and returning missionaries. At BYU, my stake president, who became regional rep., talked about this in his work as a psychologist. Someone with extensive experience counselling young people who have had those issues would be an ideal author.

    I also think it wouldn’t hurt to have a program laid out for missionaries to see how what they are doing and learning can be used in their broader lives. Part of it could include career planning, college admissions planning, those aptitude tests to determine what they are good at so that missionaries can use their time on their missions to plan ahead a little.

    Following the Spirit is important, and can address many of the issues missionaries and returning missionaries deal with. But, there is also a physical and emotional side that sometimes does not have the rational tools to catch up and believe what the Spirit is teaching. This is where work by trained psychologists would be helpful.

  35. Chris Laurence says:

    One other thing, at BYU I took a prep for marriage class from Bro. Barlow who often speaks on the subject. Some of his materials would be useful to hand a returning missionary to read and work on his worksheets and projects for the ride home. A stake pres., and bishop could follow up on those things as well.

  36. Matt Thorley says:

    Many years ago, in a stake in the Houston area of Texas, we were asked for “High Priests” dues. These were contributions that were collected and used for various good purposes idnetified by the stake high priests quorum.

    I had no problem with the concept, but the application was a little awkward. You could not make these contributions in the usual way, i.e. the donation envelope outside the Bishop’s office. You had to mail them in seperately.

    At a stake priesthood meeting the Stake President called into the question the faithfulness of those who had not mailed in their High Priests dues. I was deeply offended. These men could be full tithe payers who contributed thousands of dollars a year to the church, but because of a $50 or $100 contribution (I don’t remember the exact amount)that had not been mailed in he had the nerve to question their faithfullness. I stood up in the meeting and expressed my anger at the comment, but it still bothers me.

    I did make sure my contribution was mailed in, but this was the wrong way to use guilt.

%d bloggers like this: