Avoiding Guilt

Weiss Advice Issue: 166, July, 2017

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 obeisances 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.