Guilt is a Terrible Thing

Overcoming Guilt and Becoming Awesome

Overcoming Guilt and Becoming Awesome

Guilt Painted on Trashcans

Have you ever been in the middle of a conversation with a friend and caught yourself thinking “man, I really should do that” when the topic shifts to something that is typically guilt-inducing like putting money in your retirement accounts or eating better? Think back to one of those moments with me for a second and tell me this: did you actually end up doing anything with that thought? Did your behavior in that area actually change?

Let’s be Real. Guilt Stinks, Period.

I don’t know about you, but for me, feelings of guilt can become serious mental roadblocks if allowed. Typically I’ll come to that “I really should do X, Y or Z” moment, feel terrible for a second, but then I’ll move on to the next thing. Classical avoidance (ugh – anyone else feel guilty just thinking about it?). I really should take that moment to make a small plan for some behavior change, BUT I hardly ever do…

Sadly, it’s something many of us struggle with.

Here is what is really bad about guilt: you think that it would motivate change. It doesn’t. It inhibits it. It holds us back from accomplishing so many things, health-related or not.

Now, go back to that feeling we pulled up a moment ago. How did it feel? Like another thing on your plate? An extra load to bear so to speak? Maybe even a little bit heavy and defeating? Not a fun feeling to experience when it all boils down, right?

It gets worse. Guilt can lead to some really untrue self-talk like “I could do X, but I’m just too lazy” or “I’m just way too busy” (more on that one in a bit). That self-talk in turn shapes how we view ourself – our self-concept. Often what you think to yourself becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you continually bash yourself, and tell yourself that you’re too lazy to do something you’ll most likely end up being lazy and not doing that thing. Funny how that works, huh!

So how do you take an inhibitory feeling like guilt and turn it in your favor?

1) Sit back and acknowledge the feeling. When you feel guilt (or any emotion for that matter), much like in meditation, try to view the emotion from an outside, and non-judgmental perspective. Say to yourself, “oh man, there it is again, that guilty feeling. No harm in that, but why am I feeling that?” BUT, don’t stop there. Examine it, much the way a scientist would in an experiment. Start asking some more questions.

2) Ask why until you get to the root of the problem. Let’s use an example to bring this one to light. Let’s say you stumble across a delicious looking recipe online and think to yourself, “I really should try to cook more.”

Why haven’t you cooked more already? This is the turning point. You might try to come back with “I’m just too lazy so it never happens” or some other reason, but really ask yourself why. 

Oh! What’s that? You bought that “Cooking for Newbies” book and meant to get started by reading it. But why didn’t you get started?

And then it comes to you. You put it in a box when you moved to your new place and now it’s buried and hard to get to. Got it!

3) Write it down. Once you are here, at this point of realization, just write it down. Just in the small action of writing it down you are more likely to take action and change your behavior.

**Side note: now, I know, if you’re in the middle of a conversation with a friend these first three steps can be more difficult. If you catch yourself in that situation, try to make a good mental note for later, or go out on a limb and mention it to your friend. He could be a good sounding board for the whole process. And then it would be totally less weird to just whip out a pen and paper and start writing something down in the middle of conversation.**

4) Come back later. This one will seem a little counterintuitive, but once you have sifted through all the whys and written some things down, set it aside and come back to it. While I wish it weren’t the case, we have a very finite amount of willpower and mental energy that we need to manage wisely. Just getting yourself through the process of slowing down and asking yourself the hard why question is enough for starters.

5) Make it manageable. While it might not seem like much, when you come back to your note ready for action, take a few seconds to break it down. Keep cutting the initial task “in half” until the first step is small enough to be super actionable. Even simpler examples like the cooking book in the buried box can become much more actionable just by breaking it into small pieces such as:

What first? Okay – walk to the basement where all the leftover moving boxes are stored.

Next – Move the boxes in front of and on top of the “extra books” box without making a huge mess. I’ll organize the moved boxes into two piles so it stays tidy.

Then – Get your book out of the buried box.

Finally – Put stuff back and start reading.

It’s a simple example, but you get the point. If an action seems overwhelming it’s very easy to dismiss that task and tuck away that overwhelming feeling for later. Then, when something triggers some guilt later, we have some misattribution of emotion going on because not only do we feel bad about not doing whatever it is we “should” be doing, but we also have these underlying feelings of being overwhelmed by the task that creep back into our consciousness, whether we are consciously aware of it or not. Getting to your book under that HUGE pile of boxes feels like a much bigger and heavier task to our limited will-power if we don’t break it down, so often times we just skip it and move on.

6) Get out of your own way. Finally, don’t be your worst enemy. Too often we get in our own ways, often without realizing it. Much like packing your gym clothes the night before so you can just get up and go in the morning, try and have the book readily accessible and visible so you have lots of visual reminders through the day. But don’t stop there, make the choice to make time for it in your day. Write it in your calendar and make it non-negotiable.

7) Establish an abundance mindset. This is a small mental technique that can make life a whole lot more easier and fun. Let’s use dieting as an example. A scarcity mindset would be what you find for those who are on strict diets with no cheat days. They are always thinking “I can’t have deep fried chocolate covered bacon for a long, LONG time” and they will probably be counting the days for the diet to be over.Scarcity mindsets shift our focus to the negative which is a hard place to stay and achieve success.

The abundance mindset flips that on its head. An example of achieving an abundant mindset is establishing 1-2 cheat or “re-feed” days in your diet plan in which you are allowed to have whatever food(s) you swore off of for the majority of the diet. Instead of thinking about what you can’t have and counting the days until the diet is over so you can eat your bacon, you will be looking forward to that 1-2 days each week where you can splurge a little bit. Your focus will stay in the positive and more importantly, the whole behavior change will become much more manageable and sustainable. Winning!

One last thing…

Okay, last thing that goes back to a couple things I’ve said along the way so far. I want you to remember something, my friends:

Being busy is a choice.

It is so common to be “crazy busy” and be proud of it. Busyness, believe it or not, is not a virtue regardless of how much our culture wants you to think so. Entertain me for a minute. If you find yourself using the line “I’m just too busy to do X.” please do me the favor of stopping for a second and rewording it to be “I’m choosing to not make X a priority and am making other tasks or people a priority in it’s place.” That’s the utter reality. Changing our language reminds us that how we use our time is ultimately a choice. We often make time for what we want to make time for, just like we tend to have money for the things we like to spend money on. In the vast majority of cases it’s a choice. You have say in what happens in your life – take ownership of it and be awesome.

Carry on my friends. And remember:

Guilt is a Terrible Thing


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