Did you eat too much chocolate during Easter? Of course the definition of too much is personal – for some people, too much is succumbing to a single egg, while other people wait for nausea to kick in before they’ll stop peeling back the foil. Whatever your limits, if you exceeded them, you’re likely to be feeling some guilt around about the time the sugar crash kicks in.
It might surprise you to learn that this almost automatic reaction to bad behaviour, guilt, actually stops you from acting better. We tend to intuitively believe that the feeling of guilt will drive us to do better next time, when in fact it has the opposite effect. Feeling guilty about an action is actually our way of ‘paying’ for that action, and by doing so, we psychologically balance the books on that act. Feeling guilty is our punishment, and once it’s done, we let ourselves off the hook. We teach this kind of ‘paying’ to our children through saying sorry for misdeeds, and to adults by expecting remorse from criminals as a way of showing that they regret their crimes.
What’s far more effective in terms of demonstrating regret, however, is a decent attempt to fix the problem. Guilt leaves us feeling bad about ourselves, and feeling bad about ourselves hinders action. Imagine you didn’t feel guilt when you behaved wrongly. How could you show others that you actually know right from wrong? You have to actually make up for the action. In the case of chocolate, that might mean doing exercise. For criminals, it might involve paying back the money or community service. These types of acts show we understand the consequences of our behaviour far more effectively than guilt does. If someone doesn’t feel guilty when they do something bad, the only way to prove they have an understanding of right and wrong is to actually fix the situation. Often when we feel guilty though, it’s because we don’t actually want to ‘pay’ for the action at all – we can’t be bothered to exercise, the criminal doesn’t want to give back the money. ‘Guilt is the price we pay for doing what we were going to do anyway’, to quote Isabelle Holland. If you really want to change, ditch the guilt and do the work instead.
Many people use eating a moderate amount of chocolate as a way of self-care. It’s just one of a myriad of ways we can be nice to ourselves –eating something tasty. However guilt kicks in when this form of self-care contradicts another self-care activity– such as trying to eat more healthily. In this case, you might eat well all day, and then reward yourself for your efforts with chocolate. Recognising that this is undoing your hard work in the day, you then try to stop eating the chocolate at night. But unless you understand that it’s the self-care, rather than the chocolate itself, that you are craving, then the attempt to stop is likely to fail. Unless you have another self-care activity to replace eating chocolate, you will start to feel deprived. And how do you stop feeling deprived? By engaging in self-care, of course! And so the chocolate is eaten, and the cycle continues.
If you’re pushing yourself hard to achieve your goals, it’s essential to have self-care built into your world or you’ll end up burnt out and feeling overworked. I’ve talked about this before in my blog post ‘The Beginner’s Guide to Self-Care’. If you understand that eating is a message to yourself that you’re worthwhile, and worth pleasure, then you can substitute the chocolate eating for another activity that doesn’t sabotage the eat healthily goal – e.g. watching a TV show you like as a way of rewarding yourself at the end of the day. This is partly why having a range of self-care activities is important – so that if you need to change your lifestyle for whatever reason, you can still find ways to be nice to yourself.
This isn’t to say that you have to give up chocolate, or anything that gives you pleasure. In fact, I would advise against it, unless that activity is stopping you from reaching other goals that will bring you more pleasure/ satisfaction. This is about knowing the true causes and benefits of your actions, through honest evaluation and understanding, so you can make a decision about whether or not to keep them. It’s about taking back your power through self-knowledge. Guilt brings you none of that. Guilt stops you from acknowledging that you had a choice, and made it willingly. Guilt takes away your power. Feeling guilty says ‘I didn’t want to but I was too weak to resist’. You do not want to be saying that about yourself!
Not feeling guilty means you can honestly evaluate what the activity is giving you – why did you make the choice to eat the chocolate/ drink the wine/ yell? and then making a decision whether or not to keep that activity. Maybe the feeling of caring for yourself that you get from eating chocolate, for the price and time it costs, is totally worth it to you. If that’s your honest assessment, keep eating the chocolate and stop feeling guilty about it! It is serving a good purpose. If you need to, you can make up for it by doing something to counterbalance the act, like more exercise, in order to reach a goal. However if honestly, it’s not serving you anymore, then without the fog of guilt about your behaviour, you can rationally evaluate its importance in your life, and find a substitute feel-good behaviour that better fits who you are becoming. Regardless, there’s no need to feel guilty.
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Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.