Guilt is a powerful emotion. Guilt can creep into our lives, stealthily permeating every interaction we have. The guilt we continually carry can trigger stress, overwhelm, anxiety, and depression. We’re enculturated to feel guilt about everything we’re not doing right, about everything we should be doing.
Our society uses guilt to render us into complacent, compliant consumers. Food and beverage companies use it to keep us hooked on their products — guilty pleasure, anyone? Fitness and weight-loss guru’s use it as faux motivation. Religions use it to keep their devotees on the proper path. Parents use it to get children to behave in a desirable way.
Excessive guilt morphs into shame — something you feel guilty about becomes a value statement about yourself. I think of guilt and shame as points on a continuum, temporary guilt can be helpful and even motivating, it can point out that we acted in a way that doesn’t align with who we want to be, it can cue us to act differently. However, if we don’t take action to adjust our behavior or if our expectations are unreasonable, our guilt can fester and metastasize into shame which lowers our self-esteem, self-worth, and self-image. Guilt and shame make us feel inferior and inadequate. In a perverse way they encourage us to settle — most of us don’t push our limits embracing the fear, resistance, and discomfort required for growth when we feel less-than. When our self-image and worth are questioned, when we feel guilty about something we did or didn’t do, and when we dwell on that guilt and feel shame, it’s far more likely that we will repeat that exact behavior.
Think about all the times you felt guilty in the last day, in the last week. Did you feel it when you blew-off a workout? How about when you lost your cool with your kid, your partner, your friend, or co-worker? Do you feel it when scrolling through hundreds of posts in your social media feeds? Or perhaps you feel it most acutely when eating a particular food? I’ve experienced all of those scenarios and many more. If we let it, guilt (and its ugly alter-ego shame), can surround and paralyze us.
Feeling guilt is a response — it’s a response to a mis-match between our actions and our values. It’s also a response to the dissonance created when our values don’t match what our culture says they should be.
Our culture values shiny new things.
Our culture values appearance over ability.
Our culture values words over actions.
Our culture values the quick-fix pill over the slow process, the knee-jerk reaction over thoughtful deliberation, the black or white — right or wrong, over nuance and subtly.
Our culture values convention and conformity.
Our culture values college, marriage, parenthood, the thirty-year mortgage, the picket fence, and the manicured lawn.
Our culture values pacification and comfort. It says we should hit up the drive-thru, have a bowl of ice cream, or pour a glass of wine — it’s been a long day, we deserve it.
When we stray from the values our society promotes or when we realize those values don’t bring us meaning, purpose, or joy, we feel dissonance. Humans hate dissonance, we’re hardwired to resolve it as quickly as possible. When we feel the dissonance created from a mismatch between society’s values and our own, some of us fall back in line with society while others get stuck in a space of constant guilty rumination, unable to reconcile the dissonance between our daily actions, our expectations, and our values. If we want to reduce the negative impact guilt has in our lives, step one is to get crystal clear on what our values are. Step two is to critically examine our expectations. Often our expectations are too high while our standards are too low. Determining our values helps us begin acting in an authentic manner. Checking our expectations while elevating our standards helps us shed that guilty feeling. We get to determine our values. Every day we get to choose our actions and priorities.
We can let go of guilt.
We can change.