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Why a Little Guilt Can Be Good For You

Guilt is a horrible feeling. When we are little kids, before our moral compass kicks in, we have absolutely no sense of guilt or shame. We know we are not supposed to punch other kids, but we do it anyway. We try every trick in the book to get what we want. There’s an episode of Radiolab about childhood development in which one specialist comments on the children he is observing and he says, “They’re little sociopaths, really.”
The feeling that you’ve done wrong is something you have to learn. Often we learn it a little too much, and we start to assume that whenever we feel guilt, we’ve done something horribly wrong.
Sometimes, of course, this is true. Guilt and shame are necessary emotions related to the outside world—to other people, to society, to what people think of us and expect of us. This can come in handy, but a true moral compass must ultimately originate from the inside, and all the stories we tell ourselves about what our lives are supposed to look like have given us itchy trigger fingers when it comes to feeling shame.
When we instinctively avoid guilt and shame without mindfulness, we may easily find ourselves repeating patterns we learned when we were little that are no longer useful to us as adults. We get so busy trying to please others that we leave our own needs far behind.
We expect, of course, that all our people-pleasing will get us somewhere, that it will win us friends or protect us from losing our jobs, or maybe even just keep us away from guilt and shame. That’s just not a viable thought. Sacrificing yourself for your perception of other people’s needs usually leads to one of the following scenarios: (1) They don’t notice or care; (2) they do notice, and they resent you for being such a martyr; or (3) you become unpleasant to be around anyway because you are embittered by having to put yourself last on your own list all the time.
Guilt is something that will pop up, for many of us, at the moment we decide to do something that we want to do, regardless of what other people think. Does the phrase “guilty pleasure” ring any bells? Dr. Gabor Mate’s book When the Body Says No is a fascinating look into how human behavior affects health. At one point he advises a patient not to shy away from the feelings of guilt that come up when he needs to say no to someone. Mate writes: “For many people, guilt is a signal that they have done something for themselves.” Accepting your guilt response as a good sign you are going in the right direction could quite literally save your life.
So this week, our practice is to embrace guilt. Obviously, don’t hurt anyone, but make some choices that are completely for your own nourishment, regardless of what you assume other people will think. When you feel like you are being selfish or letting someone down, just think, Ah, a good sign. Sit with it, and insist on being as much of a jerk on your own behalf as you need to. Try it again next week. With time, the guilt will be replaced with relief, and this nourishment will be so complete and delicious, that we will want to go out there and give. Giving is, after all, what we will have been doing for ourselves all along; sharing it will become the most natural indulgence in the world. Guilt-free.


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