Guilt; a feeling of responsibility, worry or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc. Whether real or imagined.
Being racked with guilt is a terrible feeling. Occasionally guilt can be useful. You feel bad for skipping the gym, so you make extra sure to go the following day. If it forces a good action or motivation to follow, or stops you making the same mistake in future, a certain amount of it might be healthy. Guilt also makes people more empathetic, and consider others feelings so again, not such a bad thing. With that in mind, it is not surprising research showed people who feel more guilt, make better friends, spouses and workers.
Often however, guilt is a destructive and unproductive emotion. It can become extremely unhealthy especially if we are still judging and beating ourselves up about it weeks, months, years down the track. It can also lead down a bad path to punishing ourselves further for feeling the guilt, e.g. binge eating/purging.
Study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control. It is also one of the single biggest predictors of depression, which drains both “I will” power and “I want” power.
It might surprise you to hear that self-forgiveness and self-kindness is more motivating, and fosters a much better outcome moving forwards.
And here’s the thing, no amount of guilt can change the past. No amount of worrying can change the future. So why do we love it so much?
According to research mentioned in the book Upward Spiral, our bodies process guilt, shame and pride all in a similar way. Which explains why it is so easy to torture ourselves with feelings of guilt and shame, as they switch on our brain’s reward centre similar to how pride does.
What do you often feel guilty for? Common worldwide pangs of guilt include reasons like, “saying no” to a person or invitation, not picking up the phone, spending too much time on Facebook or Netflix, not responding to an email quickly, falling off a diet plan, being assertive, spending money, staying too long in a relationship, bailing on a workout.
You don’t get 20 years in jail for a parking ticket. So why are you sentencing yourself to weeks or years of emotional stress and pain from a minor infringement? You are not defined by these mistakes.
Question your beliefs: is a certain person, family, or society influencing your feelings of guilt? Are they possibly unfounded? Can you let this go? Is there a better way to deal with it that actually helps the scenario? (Note, you feeling bad doesn’t help anyone!)
Debate the consequences: So you fell off the diet last night… What choices will you make today that will help get you back on track? What habits and preparation could you change next time to help you in tempting scenarios again? Guilt is an ineffective way to solve this, and will likely cause more emotional eating to make yourself feel better!
Self-kindness: Forgive yourself! Is this really the end of the world? Everyone makes mistakes. Show compassion inwardly and stop giving yourself such a hard time. Focus on what you can do from here on in.
Next time you have guilty feelings, evaluate whether is it healthy or unhealthy. If the length and magnitude outweighs the scenario, follow these tips to solve it in a more effective way.