Sometimes guilt is just people pleasing in disguise.
If you’re a certain kind of person (and I am that kind of person), the feeling of guilt can be triggered by the smallest thing.
Not picking your son up from school on a Thursday at 3pm because you are working.
When your significant other is expecting you at home for dinner, and your boss spontaneously invites you to go out for for an after-work drink.
When you tell yourself in the morning that you will go to the gym after work, and then you go home and watch TV instead.
But what is this feeling of guilt? What is driving it, and how does it help us?
The definition of guilt, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, is this:
A feeling of anxiety or unhappiness that you have done something immoral or wrong.
My physical experience of guilt does feel a lot like anxiety. It’s a feeling of heart racing, of my mind flitting around like a hummingbird, unable to land on one thing.
But when I read this definition, I was suprised at the gravity of it. Guilt is not just the feeling of anxiety that you’ve done something wrong, but that you’ve done something immoral. Something reprehensible, on the same level as intentionally causing another human physical harm.
Do we have to spend our lives feeling that we are immoral? And is skipping the gym a moral concern?
When you tease it apart like this, the answer for most of us is an obvious no. But in our brains, it’s not so simple.
Why do we continue to feel these feelings of guilt, even if we intellectually understand that we’re not doing something that is a moral issue? According to Dr. Alex Korb, in his book The Upward Spiral, there is a neurobiological reason we go back to guilt over and over again, and why it is often triggered by the smallest thing.
Dr. Korb notes that guilt and shame activate the brain’s nucleus accumbens — the brain’s reward center. So, in a way, we can get addicted to the feeling of guilt. Despite knowing that the guilt serves no purpose in many contexts, it lights up our brains. Making it an incredibly hard habit to break.
I still manage a lot of feelings of guilt. That voice in my head that says you should do more of this, you’re not doing enough of that. But I’ve come to see guilt as manageable, like my anxiety. Some days its worse than others. Some days it requires more of my time and energy. But that doesn’t mean that it takes over my life. I can now carry it around with me, like an extra gym bag that I’m carrying with me for the day. Annoying, but it doesn’t stop me in my tracks. Here’s the perspective on guilt that I’ve cultivated over the years.
You’re making a choice; make it intentional instead of avoidant.
It used to be that the situations that made me feel guilty also made me feel powerless. Caught between the proverbial Scylla and Charybdis — I’m screwed no matter what I do. But truly, that is not the case.
In almost every circumstance where I feel guilt, I am actually making a choice. A choice to work at 3pm instead of pick up my son. A choice to go for drinks instead of home to my significant other. A choice to watch TV instead of go to the gym.
But it’s not that both choices are bad or evil. When we are burdened by guilt, we feel that one or both of the choices will make someone else feel bad, disappoint them, or make them think poorly of us. That we have the ability to control someone else’s thoughts or feelings about us. It’s a sneaky form of people pleasing, where you are making choices to make other people happy (or keep them from getting mad at you). Instead of choosing what feels right to you, regardless of other people.
So, there is a reason for every choice we make. But we need to reframe our choices based upon the right reason. And the right reason is always the one that you actually want. The one that compels you the most, or makes the most sense in your own mind. That choice can’t be based upon either the idea that one person will be “less pissed” (our boss versus our significant other), or based upon the idea that other people will look down on us or think negatively about us (going to the gym versus watching TV).
Instead of making the choice as a way to avoid negative feelings or thoughts from other people, make the choice on purpose.
It sounds like a large, arduous task. But I bet it really will take you a few minutes. As you contemplate your trip home, as yourself one question: will I feel better if I go to the gym or if I watch TV? Don’t ask what your boss would say, or your significant other. Don’t consider how it will make everyone else feel, or think about you. Tune in to your own opinion, your own feelings. And if you think the downtime is what you need, leave it at that. You’ve made a choice. On purpose. Trust yourself and your own internal compass.
Like the reason for your choice
The choice you make itself is actually meaningless in a lot of ways. For most things that we feel guilt, there truly is no moral value to either option. So what other metric can we use to drive our choice?
We can make a choice because we like the reason for it.
Let’s say you do decide to watch TV instead of go to the gym. You’ve thought through your decision, taken 5 minutes to think about why you are trying to avoid the gym tonight. And as you think it through, you realize, you’ve been to the gym three times already this week. And your legs are sore. And you’re coming down with a cold. You realize you’re not just avoiding a hard thing. Your body will benefit from some down time.
That’s a reason to like your choice.
Or, you choose to work at 3pm on a Thursday instead of pick up your son. You know that you want or need this job. You know that if you stay at work now, you’ll be able to get home in time to have dinner with your family. As long as you stay focused on the task at hand. You like that reason for staying at work. If anything, it’s a way to spend more quality time with your kids, not less.
It’s a reason you like, a reason you believe in. And that’s why you chose it.
Communicate your choice and your reason
Here’s the other sneaky thing about guilt, it makes us want to hide, to avoid confrontation with the person that we might disappoint, who we believe might judge us.
But that hiding only makes things worse.
Let’s revisit the scenario where your boss asks you to drinks. You know your signficant other is waiting for you. But you think it’s important to go out with your boss. You have a reason, and you like it — you are at a complicated point in the deal that you’re both working on, and you need a chance to brainstorm with him, without Bob or Sue in the room. And it’s Thursday, so you know that tomorrow night and most of the weekend you’ll get some quality time with your partner.
But still, you’re afraid that your significant other will be upset. So you don’t tell them, you send a belated text or none at all, and come home 2 hours later, full of apologies.
If you’ve made an intentional choice, and you like your reason, have confidence. The confidence to express, to communicate. Honey, I really need to talk through this deal with my boss. I need some extra time, but I will be home by 8pm. And I can’t wait to spend time some time with you tomorrow night. Make your choice, own your choice, communicate your choice.You’re significant other might not be thrilled, but I promise that communicating your choice will go better than sneaking in the house late and cowering in the corner, waiting for the admonition.
Simple, but not easy.
Guilt is everywhere for some of us. A friend of mine told me she used to feel guilty if she told herself (and no one else) that she would go to the post office today, and then she didn’t.
But as David Burns,MD points out in Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy:
But what is the point of abusing yourself with guilt in the first place? If you did make a mistake and act in a hurtful way, your guilt won’t reverse your blunder in some magical manner. It won’t speed your learning processes so as to reduce the chance you’ll make the same mistake in the future. Other people won’t love and respect you more because you are feeling guilty and putting yourself down in this manner. Nor will your guilt lead to productive living. So what’s the point?
If we are intentional in our choices, if we like and communicate them (either to ourselves or others), we can start to manage our own overblown feelings of guilt. And direct all that brain power towards productive thoughts. Or connecting in our loved ones. Or honing our ability to make better choices in the future.
Don’t those all seem like a better use of time than to sit awash in guilt?