I’ve always felt that guilt is a pretty useless emotion.
Like worrying, it usually doesn’t produce any real results, other than making the person feeling really crappy about themselves.
When coupled with unrealistic expectations, matters only get worse. You can trick your brain into feeling guilty for things that you’ve done only in a dream; for what someone else might think you’ve done even though you know you haven’t; for not immediately replying to somebody’s comment on social media. See? Useless.
But lately, I’ve done a bit of a U-Turn and decided that guilt actually isn’t entirely useless, for the following two reasons:
1. Guilt is usually a sign that your actions haven’t met your own core values, beliefs and standards of living. If you can differentiate between these thoughts and the guilty thoughts that relate to high expectations, you’ll know which are giving you important messages and which can be ignored.
Here’s an example of my own useful and useless guilty thoughts:
“You should have spoke up in that presentation – you wanted to say something, but you didn’t because you were afraid.” This is useful because it’s letting me know that in this situation, I let fear get the better of me and as a result, I held myself back and placed limits on myself. This is out of line with my core values and beliefs, which is why it makes me feel rotten. I don’t always make a big song and dance about situations like this, but I’ve battled avoidance for most of my life, so allowing myself to feel guilt in this situation is important because I don’t want this to become the norm.
Guilty feelings such as the one I’ve described above can be useful in that they can lead you to analyse the reasons behind why you feel this way, and take action to change or rectify the situation (as best as you can.)
2. A bit of playful, forced guilt between friends can make you step-up when you’re lacking motivation. Maybe you’re ready to travel the world, start a new business, give up smoking or start up a gym habit; if only you could find the time, money, friends, patience, get-up-and-go? Maybe it’s time that you shared your idea with someone close (or far!) and used a sense of force guilt in that not doing this thing would be letting them down in some way. Perhaps you could even enlist them in the plan?
For me, the most simplistic example of this is running. There are days when I wake up after a terrible nights’ sleep and frankly, I would rather be anywhere else. (Mostly bed…..Mmmmm bed.)
But I get up – and show up – because my friend is meeting me there. If I didn’t go, I’d feel guilty that she’d have to run alone. If she skipped it too, I’d feel guilty that she’d missed it because of me. As far as guilt goes, this is quite a thin layer. But it works all the same. And the end result is that we both get a good run in to start the day and feel pretty amazing afterwards.
Learning to harness guilt can provide some rather snazzy uses for this seemingly useless emotion.
Whether it’s getting you to do what you said you were going to do, or showing you that you didn’t do what you said you were going to, these feelings do have the power to trigger action. And where guilt leads to action – rather than just anxiety – it can also lead to change and growth.