Many of us are in the habit of telling ourselves we’re “not good enough.” Whether it’s in our careers, our intimate relationships, our appearances, or some other area of our lives, we’re always convinced we don’t measure up to some standard of how we’re supposed to be. Because it seems we can always find something to criticize about ourselves no matter what we achieve in life, this habit can be hard to break.
I used to say this sort of thing to myself all the time, until I had a realization that transformed my understanding of what being “not good enough” really means. One day, I was beating myself up for not having published a book yet, telling myself that my work would never be good enough and that no one identified with or understood it. (This, by the way, is a testament to the fact that you’ll never run out of ideas if you’re determined to beat yourself up.)
For some reason, it occurred to me that I used to torment myself in similar ways many years ago, when I was nine years old. When I was nine, I entered some sort of essay contest for kids and didn’t win, and I didn’t let myself hear the end of it. Hey, I noticed—I’m criticizing myself for exactly the same stuff, and in exactly the same ways, that I did when I was nine.
This realization prompted me to wonder: when and why did it all start? When was the first time I said “I’m not good enough”? And what prompted me to do that? Interestingly, I couldn’t recall a period of my life when I wasn’t under some sort of mental attack. Beating myself up had been a pretty consistent theme throughout my life. Maybe I’d never been “good enough” in my own eyes.
But somehow, that didn’t seem to make sense. I’d always believed the reason I didn’t feel “good enough” was that I’d done something inappropriate or immoral, or failed to do something I should have done. And this is consistent with the way that, for better or worse, we typically judge ourselves and others. If we judge someone else as “bad,” it’s normally because they did or failed to do something. “This politician is bad because he supports policies I don’t like,” we say. “My ex-boyfriend is bad because he left me.” And so forth.
If I haven’t been good enough all my life, however, it can’t be because I did or failed to do anything. When I was two years old, I’d hardly “done” anything at all in the world—and yet, as far as I could remember, I didn’t feel “good enough” even then. Apparently, I was “bad” before I even had the opportunity to do anything bad. But believing I was bad before I had a chance to act badly was kind of like calling a tree or a rock bad. A tree doesn’t “do” anything but grow and absorb nutrients, and a rock simply sits there. The idea that an object that hasn’t done anything—and can’t really do anything—isn’t “good enough” seems absurd.
This realization gave me a sudden sense of freedom. I didn’t “deserve” my feelings of inadequacy at all. In beating myself up, I wasn’t “serving my sentence” or atoning for some past sin. I wasn’t sure how I acquired the conviction that I wasn’t “good enough”—maybe it was my genetic makeup, an early-life experience, or something else. But the point was that, because I saw there was no good reason why I should suffer, I became able to let go of that suffering.
Further, I understood the mistake I’d been making in addressing my sense of inadequacy. Before, when I’d have a negative thought about myself, I’d assume I could eliminate that thought by improving in a certain area of my life. Thus, I’d pursue more achievements in the world—I’d look for ways to make more money, get invited to more social occasions, publish more articles, and so on. However, nothing I did seemed to shake that core conviction that I wasn’t good enough—my mind would simply come up with more ways my life needed fixing. Now, I recognized that seeing that core conviction for what it was—not adjusting my circumstances in the world—was the path to peace.
If you’re constantly plagued by thoughts that you’re inadequate, I have a mental exercise for you. Forget, for a moment, about the specific ways your mind is criticizing you, and the areas in which it’s saying you need improvement. Instead, ask yourself whether there’s ever been a time in your life when you’ve been free of mental criticism. No matter what you’ve accomplished, has your mind ever given you a break?
If your answer is no, consider the possibility that changing your outer circumstances won’t address your mind’s concerns. For whatever reason, your mind has been convinced for most, or all, of your life that you’re not good enough. You don’t “deserve” the criticisms your mind levels at you, and nothing about you needs to be changed or fixed for you to be a complete human being. This realization may make you feel free to release your sense of inadequacy, and to access the peace and wholeness available to all of us.
A little while back, I wrote an article on the function guilt performs in our lives and the limiting ways we tend to perceive it. Today, I want to expand on a particular point I made in that piece, which is that the amount of guilt we feel seems to depend on the time of day. For instance, I’ve observed that, right after I wake up in the morning, my conscience seems to be spotlessly clean. However, at around 10:00 a.m., I start shaming myself about things I did or failed to do in the past. The volume of my self-blaming reaches a crescendo at around 1:00 p.m., after which it tapers off again.
In my earlier article, I suggested that, if guilt were actually your conscience condemning you for your past wrongs, you wouldn’t expect the degree of your suffering to depend on the time of day. After all, the amount of scolding you deserve from your conscience shouldn’t vary based on what time it is. Instead, you’d think your conscience would keep up a steady level of punishment throughout the day, until you’d suffered enough and “served your sentence” for the wrongs you’d done.
I want to take the inquiry I began with these comments a bit deeper. Perhaps the fact the severity of our guilt depends on the time of day suggests that guilt is not simply what we experience when our consciences reprimand us. But what does that fact say about what guilt really is? To my mind, it suggests that guilt, like hunger and fatigue, is a natural, regularly occurring biological process.
In other words, just as you get hungry at around your regular mealtimes, and you get tired at around your regular bedtime, your body has regular times of day when it naturally feels most guilty. One way to put this is that, just as we have mealtimes and bedtimes, we also have “guilt-times.” The main difference between guilt and other regularly occurring physical sensations like hunger and fatigue lies in the way we perceive guilt. We take our feelings of guilt as a sign that there’s something wrong with us, but we don’t interpret hunger and fatigue that way.
Put differently, when our stomachs growl, we interpret it to mean we need more food in our stomachs. But we don’t view our need for food as proof that there’s something wrong with us. We don’t perceive ourselves as bad people because we happen not to have enough in our stomachs. By contrast, when we start ruminating on painful past events from our lives, we do tend to interpret it to mean there’s something wrong with us—that we are bad people. Or, perhaps, we spend time and energy defending ourselves against our guilt, devising reasons why we aren’t so bad after all to try to make the unpleasant sensations go away. Either way, our interpretation of guilt causes us to suffer, while our interpretation of hunger does not.
I’ve come to believe we can transform our experience of guilt by treating it more like hunger and fatigue. The next time you feel guilt, try saying to yourself “oh, it’s guilt-time again”—just as you might think “oh, I guess it’s time for lunch” when your stomach growls or “it’s time for bed” when your eyelids start feeling heavy. Try perceiving guilt as a routine bodily function that, regardless of what you do or think, will recur again and again. Recognize also that, in a sense, guilt is easier to deal with than hunger and fatigue, because you don’t have to do any activity—such as eating or sleeping—to cause your guilt to pass away. Instead, guilt simply arises at certain times of day, and subsides during others.
This practice has changed the way guilt occurs to me. Before, when my mind would dwell on the ways I felt I’d screwed up in the past, I would feel ugly sensations in my body. My upper back would tense up, and a prickly feeling would creep across my skin. My perspective on guilt—my view that my guilty feelings proved I was a bad person—was actually causing those physical sensations. When I changed my perspective, and started to view guilt as a natural biological process, those painful feelings began fading away.
I haven’t addressed one question that may be on your mind, which is: what is the function of guilt? It may be a natural process of the body that occurs at certain times of day, but why does it need to occur?
I don’t know for sure. I certainly have theories, but they’re not important for the purposes of this article. The important point is that the fact that we don’t know what guilt is for doesn’t set it apart from other body functions like sleep. Scientists still don’t fully understand why we need sleep, but the fact remains that we do, and no one questions that our need for sleep is part of our bodies’ recurring daily cycle. We don’t need to know exactly what function guilt performs to understand that it’s a routine aspect of the human experience.
The perspective I’m suggesting here has implications that aren’t limited to guilt. When you experience a “negative emotion,” or an emotion you’d rather not be feeling, take a look at the way you’re interpreting that feeling. If you’re taking the feeling as a sign that something is wrong with you, I invite you to experiment with a different view. Try saying to yourself “oh, it’s time for this emotion,” just as you’d think to yourself it was time for lunch in response to a noisy stomach. You might say, for instance, “oh, it’s anger-time again,” or “oh, it’s sadness-time.”
With this way of thinking comes an acceptance of the emotion that’s arising in you as a natural part of human life. When you simply accept the emotion and allow it to move through you, without shaming or judging yourself, you eliminate the suffering the emotion used to create. This acceptance is key to changing your emotional life for the better.
Human beings have a seemingly endless capacity to feel guilty. We can condemn and attack ourselves for the stupid, wrong or inappropriate things we’ve done, again and again. We can even continue feeling guilty about events that happened many years ago. From the sensations we feel in our bodies when we think about those events, you’d think they happened just yesterday. We can still cringe and bury our faces in our hands when the old events surface in our minds. And we can still feel the ugly heat and tension in our torsos, necks and shoulders that we experienced in those old incidents.
We often have mixed feelings about whether guilt is helpful to us. On one hand, guilt is obviously very unpleasant and distracting to experience. On the other, however, we have the nagging sense that our guilt plays an important role in our lives. Isn’t guilt the feeling we get when our consciences punish us for the immoral things we’ve done? And if our consciences are disciplining us, isn’t that probably because we deserve it? Moreover, isn’t guilt what prevents us from acting wrongfully to serve our interests, and thus keeps our society from descending into violence and chaos?
I actually question the notion that, when we feel guilty, we are getting what we “deserve”—that our consciences are rightfully punishing us for the bad things we’ve done. I don’t think guilt serves that purpose at all. In fact, I believe that, most of the time, guilt doesn’t serve any useful purpose, and we’d be better off without it. To show you why I feel this way, I want to take you through a few observations about the way guilt manifests itself in our lives. As you read these observations, notice whether they change your perspective on the role of guilt, and whether you begin feeling more freedom from guilt in your life.
The guilt never stops. It seems that you can keep feeling guilty about the same incident indefinitely. Even ten or twenty years after an event, you can still find yourself reliving the event in your mind, with the accompanying discomfort in your body. Sometimes, you can forget about an old guilt-inducing event for a while, but when something happens in your life that reminds you of the event again, you return to the same old pattern of suffering over it.
But if guilt is your conscience punishing you for doing something wrong, wouldn’t you expect your conscience to understand the idea of fair punishment? That is, wouldn’t you expect it to have a sense of when you’ve “done your time,” enough is enough, and you don’t deserve to suffer anymore? The fact that you can continue suffering indefinitely over the same old episode suggests that guilt isn’t simply your conscience giving you your just desserts.
If you are continually agonizing over the same events from your past, I invite you to try this exercise. Consider how many times you’ve suffered over the same event before. If you have trouble remembering how often you’ve relived the incident, start keeping a journal or just marking a piece of paper to record how often it comes up. I think you’ll find that you’ve been recalling the event at least once per day, and that you’ll be more than a little disturbed by the possibility that you’ve been anguishing over the event every day since it happened.
Now, ask yourself whether you really deserve this amount of punishment for what you did. I think you’ll find it difficult to answer yes.
Guilt is stronger at certain times of day. Another strange feature of guilt is that we tend to remember more painful events, and the guilt surrounding those events seems more agonizing, at specific times of day. My own “guiltiest” time of day is between 5:00 and 6:00 in the morning. If I find myself waking up at this early hour, I know I’m in for a tour of the shameful and embarrassing events of my past. Now that I have this awareness, though, I’m more prepared for the mental onslaught and it doesn’t hit me as hard.
Take a look at your own experience. Is your guilt stronger and more painful depending on what hour of the day it is? If you answer yes, as I think you will, consider a few more questions. If guilt is really your conscience condemning you for your sins, why would your conscience punish you more severely at particular times of day? Are you more deserving of punishment, say, early in the morning than you are late at night? Wouldn’t you expect your conscience to simply reprimand you when you did something wrong, regardless of the time of day?
You feel guilty even when you haven’t acted wrongfully. If you pay close attention to the situations in which you experience guilt, you’ll notice that you feel guilty even about events in which you did nothing morally wrong. I used to feel the sensations I associate with guilt when remembering many such incidents. I would remember a significant other breaking up with me, and feel the tightness in my chest and shoulders that—for me—signal the presence of guilt. I would feel guilty about making a joke at a social occasion that nobody laughed at. I would feel guilty about times when I played poorly in a sports game. And so on. Although it would be hard to characterize the things I did in these situations as unethical, I was plagued by guilt over them nonetheless.
If guilt is a sign that your conscience is punishing you, why does your conscience discipline you even when you’ve done nothing wrong? Why does it attack you when you simply embarrass yourself or make a minor mistake? These experiences suggest that, when you are being ravaged by guilt, you are not simply suffering for your transgressions. Something else is going on—guilt is playing a different role in your life.
And how about that idea that guilt exists to keep us acting ethically? Let’s seriously examine that for a moment. Is the threat of guilt really the only thing preventing you from going on a crime spree right now? Do you ever think to yourself “you know, I’d really like to go out and commit lots of murders and robberies, but I’m afraid of how guilty I’d feel if I did?” I don’t think you do. I think you understand that murder and robbery are simply wrong, regardless of what feelings doing those acts would produce in your body, and that is why you don’t do them.
I’ve talked a lot about the misconceptions we tend to hold regarding guilt, but not about what guilt actually is and the function it performs. I’ll offer my thoughts on those issues in the next part of this article.