Here's a popular Irish-Catholic joke: "What do Irish Catholic bodybuilders lift?" Answer: Their guilt!
Point me to something that's gone wrong, and in less than two minutes, I can connect the source of the mishap to something I did (or didn't do) or could have but didn't prevent.
- The potted plant died because of my black thumb.
- My child throws temper tantrums thanks to my genes + poor parenting skills.
- Today's lunch was oh, so boring because I didn't put enough effort into cobbling together an exciting meal.
Now, before you start referring me to a shrink to work on my "guilt issues," I will say this: based on my completely unscientific, anecdotal polling, I'm convinced that most women and most certainly all mothers have the ability to feel guilty about and blame ourselves for almost everything. I'm no exception.
The diet soda of emotions
Guilt is a nagging, lurking-under-the-surface emotion that doesn't quite make the cut as an A-grade feeling. I like to call it the 'Diet soda of emotions.' You'll know what I mean if you've seen the popular 2015 Disney movie Inside Out. The movie depicts five key emotions: joy, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust. Guilt does not even make a guest appearance in the film. Enough said.
And yet, most of us can't escape feeling guilty about all and any matters. Because we never run out of material to feel guilty about.
How about when you watch a mom on TikTok packing a school lunch with star-shaped cucumbers, a rainbow salad, homemade tortilla chips, and a beautiful handwritten note while you stuff snack-size Cheetos and a box of Lunchables pizza in your child's lunch bag?
Or, when you listen to your neighbor recount her volunteer experience with the city's homeless last night while you spent the evening binge-watching six episodes of Succession.
That uncomfortable feeling somewhere in your gut is guilt: the voice of your internal moral compass gently chiding you and asking you to do better.
The bad news is that guilt is by no means a pleasant emotion. The good news is that it's different and way better than another emotion it's often confused with: shame.
Guilt v shame
Guilt is your inner conscience telling you something's amiss. Shame, on the other hand, is a judgment of your character or identity. Guilt lets you know you've done something wrong. Shame will tell you that you are a bad person. Big difference!
Another facet of guilt is that it's typically something you feel within yourself. On the contrary, shame is typically an external judgment from your community, peers, or tribe and is often triggered when you act out of line or don't conform to the group's established dynamics.
Why guilt is better than shame
The reason guilt can be good and shame can be detrimental as emotions is that with guilt, you have the choice to change your actions. On the other hand, shame usually tends to be a reflection of your personality—a blanket statement about who you are and carries a lot of baggage.
Research has proven that when kids are told not to cheat, they fare better than when they're referred to as cheaters. With the former, kids understand cheating as an action—something they can control. But if kids are told they're cheaters, they often feel disillusioned and disempowered. Even they know it's much easier to change an action than to change one's personality fundamentally.
Fixed v growth mindset
Carol Dweck's famous studies on the growth mindset underscore the guilt v shame concept. When people believe that their essential qualities such as talent or intelligence, are fixed and tied to their personality, they often give up trying to change.
On the other hand, individuals with a growth mindset believe they can develop and change their abilities through learning and perseverance.
By focusing the message on the action instead of a person's identity, guilt can be empowering. It can show us how poor choices lead to poor results. And that by just making better choices, we have the capacity to produce more desirable results.
Why you don't need to feel guilty about your guilt
When we notice behaviors that have withstood the test of time, it's always worth asking why they're still around when more fascinating things, such as dinosaurs, aren't. So, why did guilt, a rather unpleasant, middling emotion, make it through hundreds of thousands of years of evolution?
We can harbor a guess: Guilt survived as an emotion because it plays an essential role in our ability to function as a society.
Guilt is our inner moral compass.
Without guilt, we'd all be selfish sociopaths.
No doubt about that. People often credit fear as the reason for an orderly, law-abiding society. I'd say guilt is a close second.
When you suspect the contractor in your house of taking your jewelry only to find it yourself in a different room an hour later and then remember that you were the one that had misplaced it, the feeling of guilt that ensues means all's right with your moral compass. You feel bad about yourself for mistrusting humanity, learn another lesson on how not to make premature judgments, and move on.
When you gently hack into your neighbor's WiFi so you can bufferlessly stream your favorite football game and notice the neighbor complaining about poor WiFi speed on Nextdoor, your guilt will lead you to stop the harmless hacking (stealing), even if you can't bring yourself to engage in a full-on confession session.
Guilt among children
It may not be a popular opinion to make little children feel guilty about some of their actions. But research has proven that guilt is a healthy emotion, even among young children.
In a research study on children and guilt, child psychologist Tina Malti suggests that moral guilt in children is healthy, adding, "It helps the child refrain from aggression, antisocial behavior."
When children feel guilt, they tend to experience remorse and regret, empathize with the person they have harmed, and aim to make it right. Adam Grant.
What to feel guilty about and what not to?
It helps to know what to feel guilty about and what not to.
Excessive anything is a problem. Too much or misplaced guilt can lead to depression and anxiety disorders. This happens, for instance, when kids feel responsible for their parents fighting (or separating).
There is a simple litmus test for whether to indulge your guilt or not.
Ask yourself whether your inner self's charges against you are true. And answer the question honestly.
Was it really necessary to adopt "that tone" with your mother-in-law on the phone last week? No. Could you have delivered the message without the bite? Yes.
Did you cause climate change by throwing your recycling with the trash? No. But could you at least try to do your part? Maybe.
Is it okay to just send a group "thank you so much for your help" text to your friends for their help with your event instead of individual calligraphed, handcrafted thank you notes? You bet.
Is it alright to ignore granny as she tries to guilt-trip you into having kids so she can see her grandchild(ren) while she's still around and mobile? Hell, yes.
Guilt is worth acknowledging when you're not fulfilling your end of the bargain. But if you've done your best and that somehow is still short of the utopian ideal you (or others) have created, then guilt has no place.
Dealing with guilt
Living a guilt-free life is a fantasy for most of us unless, of course, we choose to silence guilt completely.
You know that box of stuff you leave in the corner of the room that you look at every time and think you'll put away but don't? Eventually, it becomes part of the décor and doesn't even register as being out of place. Guilt is just like that. It's the moral compass within each of us that tries to make its voice heard. But shush it often enough, and it can simply disappear into the abyss, making us antisocial crazies that no one wants to be around.
So, how to deal with guilt like an adult?
The answer is simple: with compassion and kindness instead of self-loathing or self-flagellation. And by being honest about what you can change and what you can't.
If that mother-in-law conversation is always going to be contentious, then it's best to have those at a time when you're relaxed and well-fed, so you have more control over your emotions and your tongue.
At the end of the day, guilt is the voice of our conscience. It serves to keep us living ethically. And that matters—if we care about living in a civil society.
Now, I don't want to get off on a rant here, but guilt is simply God's way of letting you know that you're having too good a time. Dennis Miller