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Interrupting the Art of Feeling Guilty

I have mastered the art of feeling guilty. When I eat every chip in the bag, I feel guilty. When I’m late to a meeting or to responding to text messages or emails, I feel guilty. When I skip the gym, I feel guilty. When I don’t get done what I expect to in a day, I feel guilty.

I’m not alone in mastering this art of feeling guilty. My friend, a mother of a one-year-old, told me she feels guilty for not doing more in life. For example, she does not paint anymore. She thinks she should be doing more because her baby is so easy — she does not fuss and happily entertains herself most of the time. (This friend is also one who falls instantly asleep when we get into the car at 2:30 in the afternoon. She admits she is always tired, yet thinks, “I should be able to do more because I have such a good baby. I SHOULD NOT be tired.”)

It’s so clear to me why my friend should not feel guilty, yet, when it comes to my own guilt, I always think my behavior is a reflection of how lazy, irresponsible, careless, (insert any other negative adjective) I am.

Thankfully, I experienced a moment of awareness recently that enabled me to shift my thinking from “shoulds” and guilt toward productive self-discovery.

For some time I’ve wanted to improve my coaching skills, so I recently picked up a book on coaching. Three weeks in a row, on my weekly call with my accountability partner, I found myself repeating the same objective: “I will finish reading the book this week.” I read some over the three weeks, but always had an “excuse” for not finishing the book. Initially, I went down the usual path of feeling guilty for not being disciplined, for disappointing myself.

Then, awareness kicked in with a question: Why do I keep putting the book down? The answer was so clear: The book was not engaging! The content did not resonate with me. I couldn’t recall much of what I read. Aha! So, what to do? I determined I need to find a different book or learn coaching skills in another way.

When I applied this same lens to my other “guilty” behaviors, I gained awareness of a path that would lead me to the success and result I want. For example, I now realize eating chips is stress relief for me. The solution is not to take away this vehicle for stress relief and punish myself for relieving stress; rather, the solution is to find other ways to relieve stress – and better yet, ask myself what is the cause of stress every time I reach for chips.

I have learned to be kind to myself. For me, the key is not asking why I am not “better” but instead asking: “Why do I put the book down?”

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