The Uses and Abuses of Guilt

I Will Not Do It AgainI’ve got guilt on the mind today – not my own (that I know of) but the concept, the power, the influence that seems to fuel and complicate so much of our lives, our health journeys notwithstanding. How many of us have felt led by guilt – for better or for worse – as we tried to lose weight and/or tried to live a healthy life? Although we tend to view guilt as a negative emotion, has it added something positive or facilitated our success? What are the contexts guilt takes on in our efforts toward health? What are the narratives we assign to the feeling, and are they bound up in other, less effective influences?

At its best, guilt can hold us accountable. It can reinforce certain limits or standards of ethical conduct. We might be tempted toward some moral infraction but avoid actually following through because we know we’d feel miserable about it later. The guilt would by far outweigh any benefit or rush we might enjoy from the immediate gratification.

Some people can be motivated by genuine guilt in healthy ways. (Others not so much. I think knowing yourself matters here.) Those who benefit from guilt are those who put it in a context beyond themselves. They choose to quit smoking because they feel guilty about the prospect of dying an early death and missing their children’s or grandchildren’s lives. They exercise because they feel guilty letting down a fitness team at work or their running partner. They eat better because they feel guilty making their families deal with the physical lethargy and emotional instability they feel when they don’t. When we channel guilt in these contexts, it’s like we’re breaking a kind of inherent contractual agreement, falling down on our jobs, not honoring our commitments.

At its worst, however, guilt can hold us hostage. Without the proper checks and balances, it can take over our lives. I’ve met people who are held in place – unhealthy, unproductive places – by guilt. They run themselves into the ground with insane schedules because they feel guilty saying “no” to any commitment. They shrivel emotionally, socially or even physically because they feel guilty taking time away from their families and/or jobs to practice necessary, deserved self-care. They obsess over food choices, sucked into anxiety over eating the exact right thing and only the exact right thing that meets a host of standards covering everything from health to locality to farming practices to packaging, etc.. They drive themselves nonstop because they feel guilty if they don’t live up to a certain standard of fitness/appearance/health.

As far as the research goes, studies show that guilt doesn’t do us many favors in our health endeavors. Dieters, for example, experience guilt when eating foods that go against their goals, but the attempted but failed restraint and related guilt doesn’t keep them from making bad choices. The evidence suggests even, as we might intuitively guess, that eating something “forbidden” tastes all the sweeter. The guilt in this way is a lure in itself. There’s something in our natures that seeks out the transgressive. In other words, we might be better off diffusing the power of guilt itself and sidestepping its influence altogether whenever and wherever possible in our health decisions.

I wonder how often we use the word “guilt” when we actually mean shame, which is a very different concept – and much more undermining and self-defeating than plain old situational guilt ever is. When we feel guilty not pushing ourselves to the wall with every workout or making a good enough choice for a last minute dinner, it’s time to stop and ask ourselves who/what is on the other side of the guilt. Who’s imposing it? Is it society’s message? Is it a voice from our childhood, from someone in our life today? Is it our own perfectionistic tendencies at work? How much is this voice representative of reality – or, alternatively, some agenda that has nothing to do with us let alone our health? Finally, the more we succumb to guilt ourselves, the more we assign it to others. When we feed guilt – give power to it – there’s almost no end to its reach.

Because guilt seems to be hardwired into us, it’s bound to pop up now and then, but we don’t have to get dragged into its emotional cascade. When we feel guilt creep up about a skipped workout or a “20” kind of choice in the 80/20 framework, we can note the feeling, even lean into it, examine it, and then move on. Imagine not resisting the feeling but not identifying with it either. I think our emotions can offer telling messages to us, but we can’t hear these when we’re bound up in the emotions themselves. Instead of letting them get ahold of us, we can hold them in our mind’s eye for whatever consideration we want to offer them. Analyze the guilt for what it has to say about a particular choice, but then own your decision (and freely accept whatever benefits and drawbacks come from it).

Thanks for reading today, everyone. What are your thoughts on the role guilt can/should/does play in a healthy life? Are you motivated by guilt, or have you given up guilt?

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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63 thoughts on “The Uses and Abuses of Guilt”

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  1. Guilt – looking forwards – can be useful to modify behaviour positively.
    Guilt – looking backwards – can be destructive and often detrimental to future positive change.

    At least that’s how I see it. And resisting future guilt (temptation) can lead to a healthy glowing feeling. (Not eating that cream donut and instead choosing a fresh snack). Whereas thinking over past transgressions can lead to a negative self image and may even lead to further transgressions.

    We need to be kind to ourselves and learn how to forgive past transgressions (or seek forgiveness if they have affected another) and then to move on and LET IT GO!

    Nice thought for the day this article… thanks.

  2. Here’s a thought: take the “U” (you) out of guilt, and you’ve got “gilt”–a word meaning gold leaf-covered, shiny, and appearance-enhancing.

    1. I like that one. Though I think I’m going to imagine the gilt as either white gold or red gold, I’m not really that big of a fan of regular gold color – most of the time.

  3. Whatever it takes to feel great on this Primal journey…guilty as charged!

  4. I often live inside my head too often, over analyze, and strive for perfection. If I do not meet the “mark,” then I will feel guilt or shame. This is a solid post to remind me to just be in the moment, appreciate the moment, do my best, and not be so critical. Thank you, sir.

    1. I can relate. All too often I am feeling guilty about food choices, relationships, work etc. It never ends. I needed this message too and will choose to be far less critical of myself in the future.

      1. Yep – I am working hard to quit feeling guilty about not being utterly perfect all the time. I know this sounds slightly big headed, but it’s one of my key problems and it gets in the way of me actually having a healthy relationship with food. I know I once had a good relationship with food, and was slim, healthy and happy.

        Recently, I eat because I’m unhappy (or stressed, or tired because I’m not sleeping or….), then I feel bad about eating rubbishy food, so I feel worse, so I eat more, so I feel worse, so I eat more, so I feel even weaker, worse, shamed and useless.

        So I went to see a guy who sought to teach me self-compassion (not self-pity which I loathe); now yes, I have high standards for myself, but now I know that I can’t be perfect all the time. I will have bad days when I’ll eat the “wrong” thing (sweets, chocolate), but now instead of beating myself up about it, I am gradually getting over it, dealing with it and moving on while limiting the damage to just one meal/snack/day.

        Guilt can be utterly corrosive. Been there. Done that. And put on about 4 stone in weight because of it. Other people may be able to harness it for good, but I don’t feel I can. I don’t feel guilty or shamed at my current weight (though I’m not exactly turning cartwheels of delight looking like an elephant!) – I’m slightly scared by it; and oddly, that fear is what drives me (and a goodly dollop of vanity) to keep trying to get slim and healthy again.

        1. Self acceptance, forgiveness. Interesting topics.

          Perfection? another biggie. In an effort to be “perfect”, one slight imperfection (or cookie) can speak volumes in the “can’t do it – I’m a failure – forget it – can’t do it perfectly, won’t do it at all” thinking. This is very black and white.

          Reality for me has been to learn how MANY things are not black and white. Feelings. Moments. Insecurities. Fears.

          I try to focus on my food choices one meal at a time. Or one bite at a time. if that helps. Depending on the moment. I don’t always give myself credit for the positive choices and selections and decisions — which are plentiful! – but I can sure rake myself over the coals for the less than choices.

          Today at lunch I had a gorgeous salad with fresh as can be Romaine Lettuce and Rainbow Chard, snap peas, with grilled chicken (I made extra last night) and a hard boiled egg. A healthy small amount of organic dressing. Couldn’t have been tastier or happier. BUt that goes “unnoticed” ….. and yet the gluten free, reduced sugar, dark chocolate chip cookie had afterwards remains like a bright shining beacon in the sea of “low will power”.

          Unlike other “addictions”, food is not something we can abstain from. We have to make peace with food at some point or the demons will keep on wielding their poison darts our way. Making peace with ourselves is a great place to start.

    2. I think we all do this. It’s a shame, really. I honestly over-analyze every decision I try to make. It’s imprisoning, to say the least.

  5. Listening to my mom, a lot of mothers have the “guilt” of not spending time with kids, so they take away from themselves because they feel guilty, how do we break that trend?

    1. By letting go of your idea of what the ideal mom is. Enjoy your moments with your children, even if they are brief and you are busy. Everytime you see someone who looks like a “perfect mom” remember that that is just a tiny slice of their life, you have no idea what their lives are like behind closed doors. Besides, there are slices of your life that look just as perfect, if you know how to recognize them. Also, spending time with your children does not have to be playtime. My youngest daughter (10) will sometimes wonder into the kitchen to help me cook, or make a pot of coffee, or whatever, and I almost always let her, and do my best to enjoy our moment together – even when I’m feeling rushed and she’s just slowing me down. Sometimes, I need to take a mental step back, take a deep breath, and let the emotion(s) go, before I can enjoy our moment together. In the grand scheme of things, is it really going to matter that it took 3 times as long to prep the coffee pot? No. It’s not even going to matter in the grand scheme of that day. Twenty years from now, will she remember that specific moment when she helped me make that particular pot of coffee? No, probably not. However, it will be part of a bigger collective memory of the many pots of coffee she has helped me make, which will be part of the collective memory of happy childhood moments.

  6. Brene Brown, who researches vulnerability, has an interesting TED Talk titled, “Listening to Shame.”

    She makes a distinction between guilt (I did something bad) and shame (I am bad), and mentions that research indicates that shame is associated with depression, violence, divorce, etc. — and that guilt is INVERSELY related.

    Not sure what she means exactly, but I’d like to know more.

  7. Nice post Mark!

    It’s so easy to overlook guilt-driven behaviours that go back to childhood.

    I’ve struggled for a long time to overcome the guilt of leaving food on my plate, which causes a problem whenever my husband serves dinner (he always thinks BIG).

    Nowadays I solve this by trying to save enough for lunch the next day on my plate, this stops me overeating out of habit/guilt and saves prep time in the morning (and money). AND as a bonus it often means I have room for a square of extra dark chocolate!! 😀

  8. Chronic guilt over anything can be debilitating and rob one of a full life. Regardless of the reason for the guilty feelings, the mechanism is a faulty thought pattern that has been allowed to establish itself. Try taking a close look at whatever you feel guilty about. Often you’ll see errors in your thinking. If the guilt has arisen over something that happened and you reexamine the incident in detail, you may find that it didn’t really happen exactly as you’ve come to remember it. You may realize that you have very little to feel guilty about. On the other hand, if the guilt is legitimate, best bet is to “own” the cause and work to change your behavior.

    EFT works well to erase faulty thought patterns. Check out the web site for FasterEFT and do that exercise a dozen or so times a day for a few days. (It only takes about 15 seconds to do.) What you will be doing is reprogramming your brain to operate in a healthier mode instead of replaying the “I’m bad” scenario like a broken record. I’m a huge fan of EFT. I’ve found that it works well for stress, anger, anxiety, and pain. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work for everyone but it’s worth a try.

  9. I assume guilt is a stressor and raises cortisol. Every week I review my wins and losses (Did I really push my workouts? Should I have eaten all that Paleo ice cream? …). And this makes me feel optimistic, because I feel armed and ready for the next week, and my trajectory is still on track for ultimate success. This weekly review puts guilt in context.

    1. Thank you for sharing this great idea. I feel like this will be very helpful to me!

  10. Hi Mark, I think this is an excellent post. I actually just had a discussion with someone recently where I had described guilt in these exact terms and recognized its benefits but also its paralyzing handicaps. I think the kind of paralyzing guilt is extremely widespread in our society, especially in the health/wellness circles.

  11. I was raised a strict Catholic and therefore well versed in the Guilty Studies. It took me a long time to get over it (now a recovering Catholic), but once I was free, my life took off. However, one of the struggles afterwards was handling regret; regret for feeling guilty over many years. Good post.

    1. Hi James. I’ve been down that road. Not to offend any die-hard Catholics here, but I got real tired of feeling guilty and apologetic for being an imperfect human. I dropped all organized religion years ago and have been much healthier emotionally ever since. Life is a learning experience. Too bad it takes so many of us a lifetime to figure that out.

      1. You know it’s funny — I dropped organized religion years ago and have come back to Catholicism.

        The thing is I’m there because I feel a connection to my history. It’s a way to express my spiritual side and my gratitude for my life. I don’t really think attending Mass is my way into heaven or way out of hell. (As I understand it, Catholicism defines hell as being away from the love of God. The fire and brimstone stuff is supposed to be an analogy, not a literal place.)

        Anyway, to me, to be Christian (of any flavor) is strive and fail, secure in the knowledge that God loves you anyway. The rest is window dressing.

        And within Catholicism, the point of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is to ask for forgiveness and then actually receive it. Ideally, a practicing Catholic should not be feeling guilty about every imperfection because it’s a given that humans are imperfect. (Why even have Reconciliation if the baseline is perfection??)

        Of course, in theory, practice and theory are the same. 😉 There are some heavy cultural components in Catholicism that are hard to shake. But ironically, I’ve learned to maybe not take the whole thing so darn seriously. I get much more out of the church now. It has become a practice that feeds the soul, rather than another uncomfortable “to do”.

  12. I think I’ve felt guilty about a lot of things in life and not even knowing why. I think it was mainly down to my upbringing. Luckily my very wise husband told me on my birthday that it is ok to sit down at times and take a breather or have a bath without feeling guilty etc. We were brought up and taught that you would always have to do something around the house or look after someone else and if you didn’t it was considered selfish. Mark did write about this as well and this just enforces that certain things are ok when it comes to being selfish, and you don’t need to feel guilty about them either. Sometimes they go hand in hand, however if our internal compass is right I think in most cases people will know what is ok and what is not, be it for yourself or others.

    Anyway, it makes me think and shake things up a bit in and remember what is important and what is not.
    Thanks Mark!

  13. Oh my god, I just realised the bit about the bath must make me seem like a total slob, what I meant is have a bath during the day while your 4 year old is running around in the house and I have some downtime….. 🙂 hahaha…..

    1. Nope – did not make you seem like a total slob, at least not to me. Most of us take showers and consider a bath a luxury. It’s been ages since I’ve taken an actual bath….

  14. The taking a moment to examine the guilt before letting it go and moving on can be so hard to learn to do and so freeing once you know how to do it.

    That being said, sometimes that guilt is harder to let go than others, but definitely worth the effort.

  15. Wow – a lot to think about here. I just returned home after a trying visit with family, something that is not a warm and fuzzy experience for me. Yes, I went out of guilt. But actually I am glad that I did go, and so the guilt was positive. I would have regretted missing the visit even though it is something that I do simply because I have to. I will remember this next time a family commitment looms, and I am tempted to opt out with some lame excuse.

  16. I love this part:

    “[W]e can note the feeling, even lean into it, examine it, and then move on. Imagine not resisting the feeling but not identifying with it either.”

    I’ve been trying to do this in my own life. The act of not resisting an emotion and instead slowing down to observe it and ponder its underlying message is for me much more healthy and useful than resisting (or wallowing) in it. Easier said than done, yes, but like anything it becomes easier over time with some conscious effort.

  17. Great insight. We too often feel guilty about feeling guilty instead of channeling it for our better health

  18. We just have to learn to control guilt, let the occasional thing go, and still strive for awesome results and a fantastic lifestyle.

  19. Regret is great. The desire to eliminate regret (by fixing mistakes and by not making mistakes) is the most powerful motivator for humans.
    It is, in fact, what brings about the perfect world.

  20. I bought a paddle board a couple of years ago. After reading Marks books, I decided that having fun should be a part of each and every day. I take my board out every day and paddle around the lake for at least an hour. I love doing that. In the past I ALWAYS felt guilty about doing something fun because maybe I should be working on something else . Not any more. I realize that having fun makes me a nicer person. Relaxes me. I am smiling more. I have adventure of some kind every day now. I love life much more. I feel better. I come home and tackle the projects I have with a much better frame of mind.

  21. I just want to defend shame. The breakdown of a society where we live with the same people for all of our adult lives has really broken shame. Mark’s “undermining and self-defeating” link is to one of his posts on akrasia, a word I’m using all the time now, by the way. But the fear of shame is so helpful in keeping us on the straight and narrow, shame itself lets gives us exemplars of bad acts and overcoming shame and making things right really touches the hero in all of us.

    I am totally pro-shame.

  22. Mark is a SMART guy- High iq and eq and that’s not too common in today’s world- Thanks for another great post Mark!

  23. I used to feel guilty a lot. But, not any more. Life’s too short. I’ve never been a perfectionist either. I believe in “good enough”. I also don’t believe in negative motivators (shame, guilt, fear, etc.). I believe that what you focus on is what will be the most present in your life. If your focus is on avoiding the negative then you’ll always be in a negative state. If you approach life and all of its challenges from the positive then everything becomes an opportunity. It’s the law of attraction. What you put out into the world is what you get back… ten-fold.

  24. Very good article. I searched all my life for the right way to eat. Felt guilty a lot if I didn’t manage to stick to eating the “right” way, or keeping up a certain fitness routine. And I always failed no matter how hard I tried, not a pleasant feeling, guilt was always waiting for me around the next corner. Only now I understand why I failed and had to feel guilty: I simply hadn’t found the right way for me. I know this since discovering the Primal diet, because for the first time eating and food eased into my life, it just fits. It’s easy and logical and every part of my body says yes to it. I have adopted the 80/20 principle to give me more freedom of guilt and I always get back easily to the 80 percent, it is no more “falling of the wagon”, or fighting endless fights with returning bad habits, my body just knows what to do and asks for the right food. A very big relief at the beginning of eating a Primal diet was that I was allowed and even urged to eat fat. Before I always felt guilty when I had a teaspoon of butter, or even a sprinkle of olive oil over a salad. I hadn’t eaten bacon for more than twenty years. This ist the greatest freedom for me – to be able to eat fat and feel really satiated by food. Now that my thoughts are no more circulating around feeling hungry but trying not to eat, I have so much more time and energy left to do things that are really fun to me.

    1. I have no time for guilt any more. Guilt is the echoe of parents, pastors, teachers, bosses and anyone else trying to control us and make us into their individual perfect image.
      “You should have known better” is a good example of someone trying to control by guilt.
      Marshall Rosenberg, PhD who teaches Non Violent Communication (NVC) says “If something is worth doing, it is worth doing poorly”. In other words just do it, what ever it is. There are plenty of people who will correct you and tell you how it should have been done. The answer to them is “Is that how you do it? Tell me more”.
      Non Infringement is a good code to live by and if I should infringe on anyone’s freedom then I endevour to make amends, and if others infringe on my freedom then NVC is a good way to understand what is going on for them.

  25. I’m terrible for beating myself up over the fact that I cannot get a hold of grass-fed meat. I do well with eggs- free range from a friend of a friend of mine… but everything else? I have to get it at the grocery store. I buy organic when I can, and I tend to lean towards fish instead of red meat… but when I eat red meat, it’s from a CAFO, corn fed.

    I hate hate hate it, but I have tried getting grass-fed. The stuff sold around here is overpriced, or sold in bulk – which I cannot deal with as I live in a crammed house with three other roommates, who all buy separate groceries for themselves.

    I do my best with what I have, but I’m overly focused on that one issue.

  26. This is just what I needed to read today. My biggest struggle with this lifestyle is being married to a professional craft brewer. I struggle with the guilt I experience if I partake in one of the beer dinners or tasting panels, etc. not just because beer isn’t primal but because alcohol is something I want to eliminate completely from my diet. I feel like I am poisoning myself even with one drink. It’s extreme, perhaps but I feel way more guilty trying one of his newest creations than I do if I eat real ice cream! But if I choose to not to try things and attend these functions I feel guilty for not supporting his career and his passion. Tricky, tricky. This post was helpful, as were many of the responses. Thanks all for sharing and inspiring me in many ways. 🙂


  28. As for guilt/shame, I feel them whenever I act (eat) in a way that is not consistent with my identity as a person. goals may come and go, so I don’t use goals as a motivator, but identity is a constant. Along this line, I know we all have the freedom of choice, but for me, I choose to live as though I have “no choices” meaning my identity determine actions, and decisions almost make themselves. This is not for everyone, obviously. But it works for me. When I slip, yeah I feel regret that the “choice factor” still operating within. I feel the guilt of it as a sting, but I don’t trip over it. By the way, this idea of Identity as being a powerful influencer, think of these 2 movie examples: 300 and Troy. In 300, the Spartans saw themselves as descendants of Hercules and Troy saw himself and his men as “lions”.