There are so many things in life that push and drive me but none seem to motivate me more than guilt. I go to the gym so that I don’t feel guilty, I feel guilty for “wasting” a beautiful day indoors, accepting gifts, and to the extreme of feeling guilty for not being home enough with my cat. I will find a reason to feel guilty, almost search it out. I am not the only one. You will hear coworkers or friends confess apologies or become defensive regularly; both symptoms of guilt. It isn’t always viewed as a negative though. We pride those who workout religiously, refrain from the cookie platter, always go above and beyond for work, but what drives these behaviors is guilt. They conduct the behaviors to avoid the consequence of guilt. Why is guilt such a prevalent emotion and such a strong driver? It is one of those emotions we impede on ourselves, yet thoroughly avoid, but turn around and use it as a weapon against each other (guilt trip party of one!).
When you turn to the all-knowing Merriam Webster Dictionary it is defined as “feelings of culpability especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy”. Even Merriam knows we make it up! Why though? It turns out that no matter how much we complain about our mothers feeding us yet another guilt trip, we enjoy them! Neuroscientist Alex Korb researched the cause and effect of guilt. He noted in his book Upward Spiral, that guilt along with pride and shame, actually activate the section of the brain that is known as our reward center. Not only do we get the benefit of lighting up the reward center in our brain after feeling guilty, we also see rewards from many external sources. Dr. Kord found that many people who often feel guilty are perceived as better friends, employees and leaders.
Guilt has a powerful hold on what guides our behavior. Current Directions in Psychological Science journal marked that “existing research on guilt suggests that people who expect to feel guilty tend to be more sympathetic, to put themselves into other people’s shoes, to think about the consequences of their behavior before acting, and to treasure their morals.” Science is finding that many of our behaviors are directed by avoiding guilt. Those who feel the most guilt will be the least likely to show up late to work or are the most likely to stay up all night letting you cry all over their new shirt. These two behaviors cause you to perceive them as more reliable or a better friend.
So far guilt doesn’t sound so bad right? It sounds like it would get me a promotion and a boat load of friends (#squadgoals). There has to be a downside or feeling guilty would be something to be proud of. “I was so riddled with guilt today that I wrote a novel, visited my grandma and adopted a puppy.” “I am so happy for you, next step CEO!”. Not even close. What makes guilt bad? It turns out that yes, guilt has positives but the negatives far outweigh them.
Psychologist Kelly McGonigal expressed that guilt is actually one of the largest predictors of depression, in her book The Willpower Instinct. Feelings of guilt remove our power. We lose our “I want” and “I will” drive and we rely on the guilt to decide for us. Not only do we lose a sense of what we want to do, we actually just stop focusing on enjoying life in general. Of course we can’t limit ourselves to just avoiding things we enjoy, we will even go as far as to punish ourselves. Psychology Today discussed a study that over the phenomenon called “The Dobby Effect”, students were willing to receive electric shock to signal their remorse for depriving another student of lottery tickets worth only a few dollars.
Some of our phrases related to guilt allow us to see the negative sides. One common saying is “weighed down by guilt” or “carrying the weight of the world”. What do these have to do with how we respond to guilt? It turns out that guilt has many physical effects as well. As we know, depression takes many effects on our bodies – such as lethargy and illness – but what about just small levels of guilt? Even thinking about moments of wrong doing actually makes your body feel heavier. When patients were asked to do a physical activity while being asked about wrong doings, the physical tasks were perceived to be far more challenging. (Study by Princeton University)
But what can we do about it? Are we trapped in a prison of guilt headed right to the guillotine of depression? There is a lot we can do to remove our endless cycle of guilt. They may seem small, but that is the beauty! They are easy!
Ways to remove guilt:
- Name your feelings
Swallowing your feelings or trying to pretend they don’t exist is harmful. Mull over why you feel that way and then express what that feeling is: shame, anxiety, pressure etc. Just using a few words decreases the power of the guilt on your brain.
- Human contact
Relationships and human touch have a powerful effect on our brain. It increases positive feelings and makes us feel more connected to our world; more willing to take in the small things and not be led by our guilt
- Do something
Make a list of things you WANT to do. You want to do it for you. Pick one and go do it. Get your power back and ride it all the way to serotonin city. If you cannot make the time to physically go do something, listing items you are grateful for creates a large boost of happy feelings and self-efficacy.
- Don’t be so dramatic
We catastrophe things constantly. “I didn’t hold the door for the one guy this morning on accident? Heaven forbid! I better think about what an awful person I am all day”. Stop. It doesn’t matter. He has arms too, he will survive. In short, don’t make things bigger than they are. Our problems or guilt are only as big as we make them out to be.
- Take a break
Easy as that. Give yourself a breather. You are more efficient went you can think clearly and objectively. Stop and smell the roses… and not because you will feel guilty for not giving them enough attention.
Now go out there; give yourself a break, find something to be grateful for and give someone a big ol’ hug.
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