Feeling guilt is a clear indicator of having a moral compass but it can infiltrate decision-making and social situations everyday unnecessarily, and for what? Whether it’s missing out on a friend’s dinner because you feel unwell, not being productive or even being too productive, guilt seems to rear it’s ugly head again and again. Guilt is an overwhelmingly unhelpful feeling when felt in excess and if the actions weren’t criminal then the feeling of guilt is irrelevant and actually won’t change anything, so why do we feel it? Is there a way to stop it?
Here’s a confession: I feel guilty most days. After spending a weekend in Brecon Beacons, Wales, with 25 girls in February I realised I wasn’t alone in feeling like this. Throughout the weekend, we talked about adventures, jobs, relationships and future plans but I couldn’t escape the fact that most conversations were constantly scattered with feelings of guilt, even the happy stories about success and contentment were underlined with a bit of guilt.
Necessary vs unecessary guilt
It’s important to make a distinction between unnecessary and necessary guilt, the latter is instilled in the majority of us, it calls us out on actions which have emotional or physical harm on people. When we try to maintain unattainable and high expectations of ourselves, we think that by failing to do something we have let someone down and this constant pressure results in guilt. Unnecessary guilt.
Unecessary guilt distracts the brain from feeling good, it’s the same guilt that weighs heavy on your mind after you’ve eaten a wedge of chocolate cake that a colleague has bought in. Even if the cake was incredible and you probably deserved it. It’s the same guilt that makes you feel guilty for not messaging a friend back on Whatsapp with 48 hours, even though your friend has got far more pressing things to worry about than your response. Guilt constructs social pressures that make you feel constantly paranoid that you’re not doing good enough. I always feel that I should be messaging friends more.
Psychologist and behavioural endocrinologist at the University of New Orleans, Elizabeth Shirtcliff, considers both the good and bad of empathy;
Empathy is wonderful, we can share emotions. We can feel someone else’s pain. But that comes at a cost, and that cost is the higher preponderance of anxiety and depressive disorders.”
In my experience, I have found guilt to be more prominent in women, a simple Google search about feeling guilty reveals a number of confessional articles from female writers.
If you’re someone who feels guilty, you are most likely able to relate to Mila Kunis aka. Amy in Bad Moms (as much as it pains to me to write Mum with an ‘o’) who spends the majority of the film waiting on her kids hand and foot, tending to her sick dog, keeping up appearances to other Mums, all the while doing it with finesse and grace. For me, her character is fuelled by a distaste for guilt and a preference for perfection. The latter is another tendency for me, as I set myself high expectations and high results on a daily basis – surely, all of this is unsustainable and doomed for failure?
So how can we fix it?
If we just stopped being so selfless and started to be a little more selfish then we may find less pre-occupied with guilty thoughts and more content with the everyday. There is no general rule that applies to all of these situations, guilt can stem from a whole host of past experiences and psychological behaviours but I have a few ideas which I’m putting into practice.
For starters, maybe we need to learn a little more from our male counterparts and be less empathetic to these common bouts of paranoia. Perhaps in the context of social-guilt, we need to have a little more entitlement, self-respect and rationality. Step away from the situation and look at it objectively. If I haven’t spoken to a friend in a month – is this my fault? Or is this also my friend’s fault? Well perhaps it’s both of our faults but the weight of guilt should not rest solely on my shoulders in this situation.
Maybe it’s also about downplaying those voices that are trying to knock you down, I am currently reading 10% Happier by Dan Harris which is all about managing all the crazy voices within our consciousness that drive us to feel happy and sad. Dan talks explores Buddhist notions of being in the present, therefore eliminating regrets and guilt from previous actions but also stop forward planning of future unattainable goals.
Ultimately, we need to respectively work out the root of the guilt and to use logic and reason to diffuse it, we need to be pro-active about it and keep trying to work out different ways to downplay those little voices. If you have any pointers, I’d love to hear them! Fellas, if you feel the same, tell me your thoughts!
- Simon Baron-Cohen’s book on “The Essential Difference,” studies the difference between men and women when it comes to guilt and anxiety.