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.
C: Guilt

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:

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.

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.


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?

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:

You can use the online REBT self-help form and the DIBs form to help dispute your guilt-causing beliefs. Other ways to help yourself lead a guilt-free life include:

Replacing your feelings of guilt with a feeling of regret gives you a number of advantages:

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; he tutors REBT self-helpers and is the author and publisher of online REBT self-help materials.


Previous Essays


All Out! An Autobiograpy
This candid autobiography, the last work by renowned psychologist Albert Ellis, is a tour de force of stimulating ideas, colorful descriptions of memorable people and events, and straightforward, no-nonsense talk. Ellis, the creator of one of the most successful forms of psychotherapy-Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT)-recounts the memorable episodes of his life; discusses how he coped with emotional problems at different stages of life; describes his love life; and subjects his own self-description to a ruthlessly honest critique. Click here to buy the book.

Shameless Happiness
A concise booklet that outlines the ABCs of unhealthy negative emotions and self-defeating behavior. Shows how to dispute your irrational beliefs. Great for beginners and experienced REBTers alike. Download the book.

Albert Ellis Tribute Book Series Launched
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New eBook Released
How to Conquer Your Frustrations by Dr. William J. Knaus. Download the free eBook.

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Dr. William J. Knaus directly, forthrightly, and with no nonsense about it, shows almost any interested teacher how he or she may use REE in the course of regular classroom lessons and other activities. Download the free e-Book.

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