This might not sound revolutionary to some, but I recently realized I’ve made great strides in my ability to say “no” to others’ requests. A few days ago, a friend called, saying she was having a surprise party for another friend that night and she wanted me to be there. I was planning to go to a talk at a local bookstore, and I’d been looking forward to it for a while. I told my friend I’d already made plans, and stuck to my guns even when she was incredulous that I’d go to a lecture instead of her party.
This was definitely a departure from what I was like three years ago. Back then, I probably wouldn’t even have mentioned to my friend that I had other plans—I would have agreed to go to her party without hesitation. I used to feel shame and guilt at the prospect of telling someone I wouldn’t do what they wanted and possibly upsetting them. It didn’t matter to me whether the other person’s request was reasonable, or whether I wanted to do what they asked—all of my attention was on how they’d be likely to react, and how awful I’d feel, if I inconvenienced or hurt them.
The Key Realization
About a year ago, I had a realization that changed my attitude toward saying “no.” I came to understand the difference between taking responsibility for how other people feel and simply caring how they feel. When you take responsibility for someone’s feelings, you consider yourself entirely at fault when they feel hurt or angry. It’s as if you’re responsible for their childhoods, the state of their intimate relationships, their moods, what they had for breakfast, and all the other factors that influence human beings’ emotional reactions.
As ridiculous as it seems, it is commonly assumed that our partners make us angry. Most people justify their anger by pointing at something someone else does. And, unfortunately, many spouses and children see themselves as responsible for the anger of other family members . . . . Children learn this perverse theory about anger from their parents and teachers; they learn that they are responsible for other people’s anger.
However, as I finally learned, you can actually empathize with someone and be concerned for their well-being—you can care about how they feel—without blaming yourself every time they get upset.
For a long time, I didn’t understand this distinction. I thought I had two choices in relating to others’ emotions—either bear full responsibility for them, or have no concern for them at all. Because lacking interest in them seemed callous to me, I chose to blame myself whenever someone else suffered. This approach had me avoid saying “no” in almost every situation, because refusing someone else’s request would likely upset them and I’d blame and punish myself for it. It was a huge relief when I recognized that caring about people didn’t require me to slavishly agree with or obey them.
Simply understanding this distinction, however, wasn’t always enough to keep me from caving in to others’ requests for fear of hurting them. I’d been avoiding conflict to spare others’ feelings for so long that it had turned into an unconscious habit, and I had to carefully monitor my behavior to make sure I didn’t lapse into my old pattern.
Monitoring Yourself In Real Time
I found that the best way to do this was to observe myself carefully when I interacted with people and watch for moments when my mind became fully absorbed in how they were feeling. In those moments, all of my attention is on preventing others from being upset, and none of it is on how I feel or what I want. I can tell when I’m slipping into this mindset when I ask myself a simple question: “how am I feeling right now?”
If I can’t answer this question—if I have no awareness of how I feel—it means I’ve lapsed into taking responsibility for others’ emotions. As long as I make sure to ask myself this question when someone makes a request of me, I don’t find myself giving in with no regard to my own needs and desires.
Another method I’ve developed to avoid blaming myself for others’ upset is to watch out for tactics people use to get me feeling responsible for their emotional states. For instance, some people will accuse you of not caring about them when you don’t do something they want—when, in fact, you are absolutely concerned for their well-being but you have other plans or priorities in that moment. Or, they’ll demand to know how you could “hurt them” like this—implying that you, not anyone or anything else in their lives, are solely responsible for any hurt they’re experiencing.
Often, people aren’t consciously trying to manipulate you when they employ these tactics—they’re just using the style of communication they’ve grown accustomed to. However, consciously or otherwise, these people are trying to induce you to do what they ask by convincing you to feel responsible for their emotions. “If I’m upset or dissatisfied, you’re to blame,” they’re basically telling you, “so if you don’t want to be at fault and feel ashamed, you must give me what I want.” If you keep an eye out for techniques like these, and notice how they can shake your composure, you’ll get better at catching yourself when you’re about to give in to someone’s demands.
At first, weaning yourself off the habit of taking responsibility for others’ emotions can be a painful process. Initially, I felt very uncomfortable saying “no” to someone’s request in the face of their irritation or distress. I worried that people wouldn’t want to be around me if I didn’t always go along with their wishes. In fact, however, my newfound ability to stand up for my needs and wants hasn’t ruined any of my relationships. If anything, telling others what I need and want has helped them learn more about me as a person, and thus had them feel more deeply connected with me.
(This article appeared in the Carnival of Improving Life, located at http://www.improvedlife.ca/content/eighth-edition-carnival-improving-life.)
Publishing journal and magazine articles used to be a stressful experience for me. When I first started, of course, it took me much longer to prepare each piece for submission, because I wasn’t familiar with the editing process. More importantly, however, I had a nagging guilt at the edge of my awareness about sending my writing to editors. Wasn’t I taking up their time by making them read my work? Wouldn’t the magazine have to use a lot of paper or web programming time to make my articles publicly available? Was all that worth it just so I could get my name in print?
Although I had this feeling, I kept chugging away at the publication process, hoping some day I’d gain some insight that would change my perspective. Eventually, an interaction with one of my readers gifted me with that insight. It was nothing particularly spectacular or unique—a woman simply e-mailed me to tell me one of my articles helped change her outlook on life for the better. But her e-mail led me to a key realization—I’m actually giving people something when I write my articles, not just receiving recognition, money, or whatever else.
I recognized that, when I thought about my publishing endeavors, my attention would be fixed on what I was getting out of the publication process, and what others had to do to help me get it. I was placing no attention on what my writing was contributing to the publication or its readers. Of course, when I thought about publishing that way, it seemed like a pretty raw deal for the magazines I submitted articles to. I got to spread my name around and (at least sometimes) get paid, and they had to run through the whole rigmarole of printing my piece. No wonder I felt self-centered and guilty.
When I realized I could actually give others something by publishing, suddenly the process began to feel more inspiring. My productivity and focus in writing magazine articles blossomed, and I no longer felt constricted by the fear of “bothering” or “taking from” editors or the reading public.
Many of us have the hangup I described in at least one area of our lives. We worry that, if we pursue our goals, we’ll be somehow taking from others and giving nothing in return. In essence, we’re afraid that following our dreams might be inconsiderate or selfish. This phenomenon certainly isn’t restricted to career issues—many people live with it, for instance, in their intimate relationships.
Some people, when they’re considering introducing themselves to someone they’re attracted to, place no attention on what they have to offer the other person. Instead, they’re entirely focused on the possibility that they’d bother the other person or make them uncomfortable. They’re fixated, in other words, on what they’d “take,” or the inconvenience they might cause, and not what they can “give.” Not surprisingly, this mindset has them hold back or become nervous as they’re meeting the other person. But when they hold in their awareness the gifts they can bring to a relationship, meeting people can become inspiring and enjoyable again.
In my experience, people with anxiety about public speaking often have similar concerns. They worry that they’re boring or inconveniencing the people they’re speaking to, and thus they’re less confident and articulate than they’d otherwise be. When they turn their attention to the gifts they can bring the audience—the education or entertainment they can provide—suddenly public speaking ceases to feel like such a difficult and stressful exercise.
I believe that, in our deepest essence as human beings, we naturally desire to care for and bestow our gifts on others. This desire is a strong motivator when we’re pursuing our goals in life. Simply remaining conscious of what we’re contributing to the world with our activities does much to dissolve the fears and mental barriers that get in the way of our success. In Unfolding Self: The Practice Of Psychosynthesis, therapist Molly Young Brown aptly describes how connecting with our drive to serve is a powerful source of energy and focus:
When we know ourselves to be most essentially spiritual beings, acting through particular personalities and organisms, we are set free from the fear of selfishness that has plagued the good children of our culture for so long. We truly can trust ourselves! When we plunge deeply into who we are, we discover that we are creatures of great potential who yearn to use our capacities to serve humanity . . . . To be truly Self-centered is to be a giver of gifts to the world.
If you have a goal you’ve wanted to achieve, but you’ve felt restricted by fears of “taking from” or inconveniencing others, I invite you to try this exercise. For a moment, remove your attention from the praise, material things, or anything else you may receive from the activity, and the possibility that others might disapprove of what you do. Instead, focus your attention on the ways what you plan to do would serve the world. Picture the happiness, comfort, productivity, and other gifts you’ll bring into people’s lives.
If you aren’t accustomed to thinking this way, I suspect you’ll be surprised by how motivated and inspired you’ll feel, and how insignificant your fears will appear compared to the joy you can bring others.
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.
Do you have trouble accepting compliments? I definitely did at one time. When someone would say something nice about me, I’d get bashful and downplay the aspect of my character or accomplishments they’d pointed out. For instance, if someone at work said “you did a great job on this project,” I’d say something that suggested I hadn’t really accomplished or contributed much, like “well, I’ve done this a lot before,” or “yeah, the research didn’t take as long as I expected.”
I did this because I’d feel a tension in my upper back and shoulders when people gave me compliments, and I wanted to get rid of that discomfort as quickly as possible. When I felt the sensation, I had the vague feeling that I’d done something wrong, but I wasn’t quite sure what it was. For many years, I made no effort to understand why this feeling was coming up—I wasn’t even aware, in fact, that such understanding was possible—and I continued deflecting compliments whenever I could.
It wasn’t until a friend pointed out how uncomfortable I seemed to get when I received a compliment that I gave any thought to why that was happening. When my friend raised the issue, I tried to change the subject, as I didn’t even want to think about the sensation for fear of recreating it in my body. But my friend, out of love and concern for me, wouldn’t let me off the hook, and kept probing for the reasons why I felt the way I did.
When I focused my attention on the sensation that arose when I received compliments, I recalled a few times I’d felt it during my childhood. In each of these instances, I remembered, someone accused me of being selfish, or of failing to do enough to help others. I felt ashamed when others thought I was self-centered, and the tension that arose was the manifestation of that shame in my body. Somehow, it seemed, I associated getting compliments with being selfish.
Eventually, I understood the unconscious thought process driving my feelings of shame. It was as though, when someone gave me a compliment, they were cutting a slice from a pie and offering it to me. If I didn’t downplay the compliment, I was eating the slice. The imaginary pie was tasty and nourishing. The problem was that other people also wanted slices. If I accepted a piece, there would be less for others to eat, and I wasn’t any more deserving of pie than anyone else. Thus, it was selfish for me to simply accept a compliment—a piece of the pie—without deflecting or refusing it.
In short, I had what many self-help authors call a “scarcity mentality” regarding compliments. I saw others’ appreciation as a scarce—i.e., finite, limited, exhaustible—resource, and I thought I had to avoid accepting too much of it to make sure there was enough left over for others. Of course, this mentality had no relationship to reality. If I accepted a compliment, I wasn’t “taking” something that rightfully belonged to someone else, or depleting the Earth’s precious compliment supply. If anything, I was making others worse off by rejecting the positive things they said about me. Other people wanted me to feel good when they complimented me, and I was frustrating their desire with my habit of putting myself down.
These realizations helped me change my perspective on compliments from one of “scarcity” to one of “abundance.” I recognized that compliments are an abundant—indeed unlimited—resource, and there will always be enough of them to go around. With this new understanding, I stopped feeling the need to deflect or downplay compliments, and I simply thanked others when they’d say nice things about me. Today, when someone compliments me, I feel pleasant, warm sensations in my body—just as the person complimenting me intends.
Many of us—consciously or otherwise—have adopted a scarcity mentality when it comes to experiencing positive emotions. We feel guilty or ashamed, as though we’ve taken something that doesn’t belong to us or more than our fair share, and we deny ourselves permission to feel good. If you find yourself feeling this way, the most important step you can take is to become aware of the scarcity mentality that is driving your attitude. When you consciously recognize that you have that mentality, you’ll also begin to see how irrational—and almost laughable—it is. Finally, you’ll find that life is far more fulfilling when you learn to accept others’ appreciation of you at face value.
I want to tell another story about my friend, the computer programmer who wants to be an interior designer, because my conversations with her raise so many fascinating questions about the challenges surrounding career transitions and pursuing your calling.
My friend is fully ready to start her interior design business—she’s got the ambition, the capital, and the contacts to make it happen. But a few fears are holding her back. One of her fears is that she won’t be able to explain to people why she went into her new field.
When she told me this, I was a little confused. “Isn’t it because you really like decorating people’s houses?” I asked. “That doesn’t sound hard to explain.”
“But I like to do a lot of things,” she replied. “That doesn’t justify choosing interior design. I like snowboarding, but that doesn’t mean I should quit my job and become a professional snowboarder.”
“Is that what people will say when you tell them you enjoy interior decorating?” I asked.
“I know my Dad will,” she said. “He’s very logical, and he’ll come up with some argument for why I shouldn’t be a decorator that I can’t answer.”
I then realized what the problem was. My friend believed she’d be obligated to explain to others why she made her career change, but that wasn’t all. She also thought that, if she explained her choice, others would come up with arguments for why her choice was wrong or irrational. If she didn’t think she could adequately answer those arguments, she believed, she had no business changing her career, even if she had a strong desire to. It was almost as if she were a lawyer or a White House press secretary—someone whose job involves justifying their position to others and answering hostile questions.
I could identify with my friend’s perspective because I used to share it. I not only felt I was required to “defend” my decisions in the academic and career realms—I even felt obligated to defend my choices about matters of “personal taste” like the furniture in my apartment.
For instance, I don’t have a television. A while back, when someone was about to visit my place for the first time, I found myself wondering how I’d explain the absence of a TV. Perhaps I’d say I thought watching TV was a waste of time. However, I thought, someone might be dissatisfied with that explanation and push back. They might ask questions like “what if someone else wants to watch TV?” or “well, you have a computer. Do you look at any websites just for fun? What’s the difference?” I might think of logical answers to those questions, but then I would come up with a whole raft of further “counterarguments” against my “position.” Deliberating on how I’d “defend” a decision as seemingly insignificant as my choice not to have a TV could take up hours of my time.
Doing all this rationalizing and justifying in my head was hard, unrewarding work, and eventually I got sick of it. One day, while pondering how I’d justify the car I just bought to other people, I got so frustrated that I said, out loud, “I’m tired of having to explain everything I do!”
But as I expressed my frustration, a question occurred to me: do I really have to explain everything I do? There’s no law saying I have to justify the car I drive, the food I eat, the career goals I pursue, and so on. There’s no reason I must be able to defend every action I take against every possible criticism. When and why, I wondered, did I decide I had this obligation?
As I contemplated this issue, memories of my childhood surfaced. I remembered that my parents, when they didn’t like something I did, would ask me why I did it. “Why did you leave that sock on the floor?” they’d ask. “Why didn’t you do the dishes?” “Why did you stay out so late?” And so on. I wanted to please my parents and make sure they kept loving and caring for me, so I’d try to come up with a reason that satisfied them. But they wouldn’t be satisfied, and I’d feel ashamed and ignorant.
Those memories were painful, but they held the key to understanding why I had this need to rationalize my every decision. In spending time devising convincing reasons for everything I did, I was just repeating behaviors I’d learned in childhood. When someone asked me why I did something, I’d try to give a reasonable explanation to protect myself against the shame I felt when I couldn’t “explain myself” as a child. I’d even plan in advance the conversations I’d have about my life choices, to make sure I could respond to criticism and avoid getting stumped and feeling guilty.
But this strategy didn’t make sense in the context of my adult life. For example, I didn’t need people I’d just met at cocktail parties to love and care for me—I could live without their approval. However, just as I did as a child, I’d feel the need to make sure I could logically explain my every choice to those people. I was following a strategy geared toward ensuring my parents loved me—even when dealing with people who weren’t my parents and whose love I didn’t need.
Further, I recognized that my strategy of explaining myself hadn’t even helped me as a kid. My parents, when they asked why I did something, really meant that they didn’t like what I did. It wasn’t as if they would see what I did, ask for an explanation, and then decide how they felt about it based on whether my explanation made sense. When they asked me to “explain myself,” they’d already made up their minds that they were unhappy with what I did—they didn’t actually care about my reasons.
In sum, I realized I was following a strategy in dealing with people that had been useless all my life. Thus, I decided to experiment with just telling people what my choices were, without any justification. For instance, when I left the legal profession, I predictably got a bunch of questions from people about why I did it. Some of these questions were pretty pointed. “Aren’t you throwing your career away?” one person asked. “Have you had some kind of breakdown?” another asked. Instead of explaining that I hadn’t gone insane and listing all my legitimate reasons for making a transition, I simply said “no.” Answering without backpedaling, apologizing or rationalizing felt empowering, and I was surprised at how many people respected my answer and my decision.
If you’re thinking of making a career transition, but you’re afraid you won’t be able to justify your decision to others, I have an experiment for you to do. For a moment, take your attention off the arguments you must make to convince others that your choice is right, and place it on why you feel the need to justify your choice at all. Ask yourself what will happen if you don’t satisfy others with your justifications. Also, ask yourself whether you’re really accomplishing anything by convincing others that your life decisions are right. Developing awareness around these issues may have you feel freer to make the change you want.
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.