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 more than three decades 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 flavorful and delicious kitchen staples crafted with premium ingredients like avocado oil. With over 70 condiments, sauces, oils, and dressings in their lineup, Primal Kitchen makes it easy to prep mouthwatering meals that fit into your lifestyle.

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