“Everyone indulges sometimes; don’t be too hard on yourself.”
In a study, a note with this message was given to a group of dieting women who had just eaten a chocolate doughnut “in the name of science.” Another group of dieting women ate the doughnut, but did not receive this message. Then, each group was given an opportunity to taste test candy, and were given permission to eat as much as they wanted. 2
Which group do you think ate less candy?
If you said the group that received the note, you are correct: they ate an average of 28 grams of candy compared to 70 grams by the group who did not receive the note. 3 The reason? That note reduced their guilt. And it did so by way of increasing their understanding.
We Don’t Respond Well To Guilt
When we feel guilty, we tend to look for comfort, and that comfort often takes the form of the very things that make us feel guilty. This can form into a guilt spiral:
Eat junk food, feel guilty, eat junk food to feel better, feel guilty instead, eat junk food to feel better, ad infinitum…
My most memorable experience with guilt was from before the one push-up challenge. Because I felt so guilty for being out of shape, not exercising, and letting myself down, physical exertion was the last thing I wanted to do. I found it so ironic that because I didn’t exercise before, I was less likely to exercise (because of the guilt).
When I gave myself the challenge of doing a single push-up, a huge burden was lifted. I lowered the bar to success so much that my guilt was extinguished. People are finding freedom in the Mini Habits philosophy because of its smart willpower conserving strategy, but also because it destroys guilt. It’s hard to keep feeling guilty when you win every day.
Most goals are guilt-traps: if you set a goal that’s too difficult (given your willpower strength), you’re likely to feel guilty about it when you fall short. Based on the studies that observe how guilt affects us, you definitely don’t want that!
The Guilty Phrase: “Supposed To”
Guilt happens when we’re “supposed to” be a certain way or do a certain thing and we fall outside of those lines. The pressure can come from us or others. For example, in the Sarah Mclachlan SPCA commercials, they show you pictures of limping animals to her emotionally-charged “Angel” song. The effect is that you’ll feel guilty if you don’t donate money. You’re supposed to do it because…just look at that sad dog’s face! It works.
The problem with guilt is that it’s like living with a ball and chain on your foot. It’s not fun, it’s anti-freedom, and it corners us into falling into bad habits over and over again.
I’m telling you, if you can remove guilt from your life, you will feel like a new person. What if your decisions weren’t weighed down by unrealistic expectations? What if you could take a full day off or heck, a full month off and not feel like a lazy person? This is a life without guilt.
Living guilt-free is kind of like being on vacation all the time, but only in how you feel. Guiltless living will actually improve your productivity in a few ways:
- Increased positivity from accepting yourself and your choices improves creativity, focus, and energy
- Taking guilt-free breaks will recharge you MUCH better than guilty ones
- Having no guilt allows you to choose tasks with less second-guessing
Take Action: Live today with no guilt about the past. Don’t let your prior choices bother you at all. You’re forgiven. You’re free.
Does this mean you can indulge in your bad habits? Not exactly. Guilt does have a useful purpose: because it’s a negative emotion, we tend to want to avoid it. The desire to not feel guilty helps us choose the better path, but when we eventually do choose the wrong path (it happens to the best of us!), the actual feeling of guilt we get worsens the situation and threatens to spiral us.
I’ve found that living a freedom-based lifestyle in which I’m less judgmental of my choices helps me to make clear-headed decisions in the long run (not to mention the fantastic stress reduction benefit). It helps to think from a basis of understanding yourself rather than judging yourself.
For example, say that after a long day of work, you grab the ice cream bucket (it comes in buckets?) and have that for dinner. Oops! But instead of beating yourself up about it, why not take the opportunity to gain insight about your behavior? You were stressed out and tired, there was nothing much to eat for dinner, and the ice cream was easy, fast, and comforting. Now we can come up with a possible solution: make sure you have something planned for dinner.
Seeking to understand your behavior reduces guilt because it deemphasizes what you did and emphasizes why you did it. When you ask why, you increase your understanding of the situation. Just like how the note decreased the guilt of the dieting women in the opening study, better understanding (everyone messes up!) makes you feel like less of a failure.
The subscriber-only message on 5/13/14 expands upon this post! Join Deep Existence below to read the rest.