Stuck moment: I feel like I don’t deserve to be here because I let everyone down. I just want to slink into a corner and keep my eyes on the floor…Or maybe just quit and go home? I even feel guilty about feeling guilty!
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For many of us, guilt is like a certain kind of old friend — someone whom we willingly let in the door, and then can’t kick out.
Guilt shows up when we act in a way that doesn’t sync with our goals and values — whether procrastinating, or breaking a promise, or taking credit for someone else’s work. At its best, guilt acts like a moral compass, prompting us to reflect on what we’re doing (or not doing), and then make constructive change.
But when guilt settles in for the long haul, serving up daily helpings of blame and shame without adding anything constructive to the mix, we find ourselves living with a parasite. Guilt shadows the good things in our lives. It whittles down our energy and self-worth. That’s when we begin cheating ourselves of our personal dreams and needs. We make a habit of putting ourselves second, feeding our guilt, and starving our self-esteem — making it harder and harder to be our fullest, brightest, most creative selves.
Here are five telltale signs that guilt may be eating up the quality of your life:
• You avoid certain people or situations because they trigger shame memories.
• You say no to opportunities because you believe you don’t deserve them.
• You clam up or get defensive.
• You rationalize or make excuses, even when no one’s challenging you.
• When you play (and replay) the guilty act in your head, it kills your mood and energy levels — and takes you a good long while to reset.
There are three common forms of guilt that can rob us from living fully — if we let it. Instead, let’s kick out the guilt, rather than repeatedly kick ourselves. Here are some ways to start.
THE GUILTY-PLEASURE PARADOX
“Guilt-free” is a phrase that gets tossed around a lot: guilt-free TV, guilt-free desserts, guilt-free shopping… It seems that wherever there’s pleasure involved, there’s guilt to be had. We often don’t allow ourselves to do what we want because we believe we haven’t earned it. And, even when we do say yes, that guilty little voice in our heads spoils the fun of a nightcap at the close of a hard day, or that beach getaway with friends.
Ironically, research shows that guilt is a pretty ineffective way to control behavior. In a 2013 study published in Appetite, psychologists found that people who linked chocolate cake with guilt rather than with celebration had more trouble losing and maintaining weight. Instead of acting as a positive motivating force, guilt actually leads to feelings of helplessness and lack of control.
While it’s healthy to have rules for responsible behavior — a glass of wine with dinner is one thing; a bottle of wine is another — unrealistic expectations of never ever indulging set you up for failure. And a dull life.
Try these tips:
• Let go of borrowed beliefs. If you feel that something you want to do is undeserved, ask yourself who said so. Does society say that it’s wrong? Your mom? Your childhood baseball coach? Then ask yourself what you believe — and respect your own judgment.
• Calculate the consequences. What’s the fallout if you indulge? And what can you do to mitigate it? For example, if the consequence of ordering dessert is falling off your diet wagon, how can you counterbalance it? A morning trip to the gym, perhaps? (Although you probably don’t want to make this a habit.)
THE TRAP OF A GUILTY CONSCIENCE
A guilty conscience can be your personal Alcatraz — rocky, labyrinthine, and impossible to escape. But punishing yourself with thoughts of what a terrible person you are doesn’t help you make amends for that terrible (or perhaps not-so-terrible) thing you did. Instead, it makes you self-absorbed and self-protective. You stop putting your best foot forward — cheating not only yourself, but other people in your life.
The thing is, guilt without behavior change is a cop-out. If you did something wrong — even if the victim is no one but yourself — acknowledge it, try to repair the damage, and commit to not doing it again. Once you emancipate yourself from your guilty slammer, your world will get brighter and fuller with possibility.
Try these tips:
• Forgive yourself. Okay, so you did something you’re not proud of. That’s part of being human, but it doesn’t define who you are. Forgiving yourself requires new perspectives. Talking through your guilt with someone else often lightens the burden. When you speak your thoughts out loud it usually removes much of the sting — though it may not happen in a single conversation. You might also try talking to yourself as if you were another person. What would you say to someone else who is in your position?
• Break up with your guilt. Once you’ve made honest efforts to make amends, box up your guilt up and get rid of it. Try creating some kind of ritual that helps you divorce your guilt — such as writing a positive affirmation or letter to yourself, or burning or throwing away a physical artifact that represents your feelings of shame.
THE GUILT-INDUCING MYTH OF PERFECTION
The bogeyman of perfection plagues us throughout our lives, and guilt (perfection’s enfant terrible) rears its ugly head when we fall short of what we think we ought to be — whether it’s the woman who “has it all” or the straight-A student obsessed with the highest score.
Often, this guilt is shaped by fear of disappointing others: You’re a rotten parent because you missed a school play; you’re a bad friend because you forgot a birthday; you don’t deserve to be happy because your traditional-minded family says you make poor choices…Every time you fall short of the impossible, you beat yourself up a little more.
To lessen the loathing, try to shift your thinking to what’s truly achievable — the tips in last week’s Unstuck post “The secret to work-life balance” can help — and create tactical ways to juggle and prioritize life’s many demands. Because when guilt leads, you try to please everyone, ironically, you please no one — particularly yourself.
Try these tips:
• Mute the peanut gallery. When you feel lessened by guilt because you couldn’t do everything perfectly, replace the negative voice with a positive one; for example, instead of “I served dinner 15 minutes late,” shift to “I spent extra time getting the sauce perfect, and I know my friends will really appreciate that.”
• Own your failures. Mistakes only diminish us when we don’t learn from them. Use our Failure Analysis Checklist to reflect on what went wrong, and to surface important lessons that will help you prevent the situation from happening again. The mistakes we make can make us wiser, smarter, and more compassionate — but only when we stop palling around with guilt and embrace constructive change.
DOWNLOAD THIS PRINTABLE TIP CARD: 6 ways to say good-bye to guilt