Achieving Balance in Life and Work: The Human Condition

Weiss Advice Issue: 169, October, 2017

The human condition: avoiding guilt

The greatest inhibitor of performance, enjoyment, and freedom that I know of is guilt. Guilt is virtually entirely self-imposed, in that despite the actions and words of others, only you can invoke your own guilt.

I know this, because the converse is so true. I’ve seen people respectfully and solemnly sit in a church and perform all of their obeisance and rituals. They are, for the hour, moved by the spirit of their religious beliefs. Yet no sooner than driving out of the parking lot at the end of the service, these same pious people are cursing and gesticulating as other drivers forge ahead of them to escape the parking lot.

If guilt can be so easily shunted aside, it can be just as readily claimed.

I’ve always felt that a key to eliminating guilt as much as possible resides in the fact that life is about success, not perfection. (I learned that from therapy years ago, and it was worth the price of admission.) If we make ourselves feel bad, low, or worthless every time we’re not perfect, we’re going to lead a guilt-ridden life. But if we recognize our imperfection, vow to do better next time, and strive to do our best in all conditions, success will likely be ours when we deserve it and guilt should be avoidable.

Those who should feel guilty (criminals, betrayers, cheaters) seldom do, so that guilt doesn’t play a role for those it should and plays far too great a role for those it shouldn’t. One of the textbook definitions of a psychotic, for example, is that he or she feels absolutely no guilt. The best ways to avoid and/or confront guilt:

  • Don’t insist on perfection, but simply do your best to succeed against clearly-defined goals. I once heard a professional speaker say that “fine isn’t good enough, I have to be great.” That’s not a burden I want to carry.
  • Examine the “shoulds” we all carry around. Is it really a crime not to call your mother every week, to allow the kids to do their homework by themselves, and to forego contributing to the United Way Campaign because money is tight?
  • Find a reliable sounding board. Tell your spouse, friend, or significant other that you’re beginning to feel guilty about something, and let them help you analyze it.
  • Separate your feelings from your actions. Acknowledge that you might be feeling guilty about something, but don’t necessarily act on it. We tend to get into trouble when we act strictly on our emotions without allowing logic to creep in.
  • Get over it. Excuse yourself. Allow yourself the same grace you would allow someone else. If you broke a friend’s favorite old record, apologize and offer to make amends. Search the Internet for a replacement or buy something equally sentimental. But don’t beat yourself up. Accidents, poor judgment, and sloppiness happen. It won’t be the last time.

There’s great drama on the television law shows when the jury is asked to read a verdict which is “guilty” or “innocent.” You are your own jury. Cut a deal with the prosecutor before the jury reconvenes.

The human condition: Treason and traitors

We are our own worst enemies because we snipe at ourselves from hidden redoubts, camouflaged and deadly. We could probably fight the enemy within if the assault were obvious: behavior which was clearly dysfunctional or beliefs which might be readily challenged. But the insidious nature of the enemy resides in the treason that occurs in our own camp. Too many people relentlessly doubt themselves and demean their accomplishments, while exaggerating their setbacks and illuminating perceived flaws. It’s narcissism turned inside-out. (Gore Vidal once observed that a narcissist is someone who’s better looking than you are.) How does treason against your own best interests manifest itself? In the nature of your internal (and sometimes external) conversations. Listen to yourself. If you’re successful in an endeavor, do you say you were lucky, or do you focus on the behavioral causes of your success? I’ve always believed modesty to be an overrated asset, but it’s still short of treason. Here are the possibilities:

  • Health: I contributed to the event’s success because I took the time to listen to the committee members and provide them with a feeling of inclusion.
  • Modesty: I was fortunate to have committee members who responded well to my strategy of inclusion.
  • Treason: I was lucky that the committee members decided to contribute as much as they did, or I would have failed.

You might view modesty as the externalized version of your internal health, sort of a press release palatable to the public. But treason is unacceptable under any conditions. (And such statements are almost always followed by the epilogue, “again,” a history of treason encapsulated in a single word: “Well, I did it AGAIN.”)

And what happens when you do “fail,” when there is a legitimate setback? The traitors within our psyche don’t claim luck this time, but rather incompetence. If the competition beat us, it wasn’t because they were in the right place at the right time, it was because we didn’t prepare well, we didn’t anticipate, we weren’t good enough. The traitor makes sure that we beat ourselves severely, even though the defeat might have been unavoidable under any circumstances. (Loren Eisley once commented that some coasts are set aside for shipwreck. In other words, failure is not necessarily about our personal performance.) In these cases:

  • Health: The event failed because we didn’t publicize it sufficiently, and our publicity chair didn’t put in any effort, which I didn’t detect early enough.
  • Modesty: I accept the accountability and I’ve learned what I have to do better next time.
  • Treason: I did it again. I’m worthless. What’s the use?

Beware of the traitors within us. The very way we explain our successes and our failures to ourselves can eliminate the treason that undermines our lives. The problem, of course, is that some of us don’t have a positive vocabulary, and only the traitor can speak out.

(For techniques about “self-talk” and “learned optimism,” see the work of Martin Seligman, including the book Learned Optimism.)

The human condition: Anger

Anger is almost always the result of unhappiness with ourselves which we redirect against others so as to protect our egos from damage. Missing a flight because of our own poor preparation is, understandably, an anxiety-laden event. If our self-esteem is poor, we’re not about to blame ourselves for the undue delay, the extra expense, and the lost opportunity, so we lash out at whomever represents the airline.

We’re going to blame the ticket counter clerk if we’re assertive enough to confront someone personally, or we’ll blame the airline, government, or fates if we’re more “big picture” in our scapegoating.

I’ve always thought that one of the primary causes of uncontrolled anger is our inability to accept our own imperfection. If we’re willing to accept that mistakes, miscalculations, misjudgment, and misinformation are a natural part of existence, then we shouldn’t be surprised when one of those four horseman bears down on us and knocks us off our feet. But if we take it as a potentially personal affront to our competence and intelligence, we’re going to try to scamper out of the way and throw someone else in front of the thundering hooves.

My own attempts to diagnose my anger–which I’ve always rationalized as “healthy outrage,” thereby giving a tinge of moral justification to the desire to hit someone over the head with a board–have led me to three conditions:

  1. I have clearly screwed up by listing an incorrect date, forgetting a key piece of information, or trying to cut things too close. (I assumed a Saturday would be a slow day at the airport and didn’t allow much time, and when I arrived it turned out that it was the start of spring break and the place looked like an invasion staging area.)
  2. Someone else has screwed up. (The travel agent failed to make the change I had told her about, and I’ve shown up for a plane that the airline rightfully does not expect me to take.)
  3. No one has screwed up, but things just haven’t worked out in my favor. (I missed my connection because a storm front blew in and closed the airport.)

In all of these three possible conditions, I try to quickly arrive at the only logical and helpful position: I can’t undo it, so how do I make the best of it?

I realized I had made progress while awaiting the last flight out of Montreal for Boston late in the evening. A Delta flight attendant inadvertently triggered the emergency chute instead of simply opening the door, and the next available door replacement was in a Delta hanger in Atlanta. As a harried and besieged agent tried to calm an incensed crowd of over 250 people who were now unexpectedly going to spend another night in Canada, I stepped forward from the periphery, asked for quiet, and suggested that we let the agent speak, since he might have some important help. As I did so, I walked from the rear of the crowd to the counter.

The clerk announced that he had hotel and meal vouchers, and if people would get in an orderly line, he would distribute them immediately. Since I was by now next to the clerk as his protector, I took mine first and got to the taxi, hotel, and restaurant before the other 249 irate passengers. I didn’t get angry, I made the best of it.

Anger is terribly debilitating, whether externally or internally directed. Get over it and determine what will immediately improve your condition.