A guilty conscience is a strange thing. Our brain is telling us something isn’t right and it can be difficult to pinpoint the underlying reason. If left unchecked, that uneasiness can prevent us from living a full life.
There’s nothing more useless than harboring a guilty conscience. It does no good except for the sweet relief of getting rid of it. So why are so many letting such a useless feeling get in the way of happiness?
Guilt is cancer. Guilt will confine you, torture you, destroy you as an artist. It’s a black wall. It’s a thief. Dave Grohl
A Waste of Energy
I’ve spent too much time being bothered by guilt. It could emerge from the silliest things, and I only recently managed to control it by dealing with the underlying reasons.
I’m not talking about real reasons for guilt here, like actually hurting someone or criminal acts. I’m talking about the little things that don’t really matter, yet bog our minds down.
For instance, a friend calls and asks if I want to grab a beer. I feel more like staying at home and work, so I tell my friend. He replies “OK, later”. I’m stuck at home, not being able to work as effectively since I’m riddled with guilt for not having agreed to meet. It’s an absolute waste of energy, and I know—still, I can’t shake the feeling.
What’s going on here? I’m imagining my friend sitting at home, horribly disappointed and for not getting to meet his favorite person (me), thinking I’m a jerk for not giving him my time.
First of all, that’s obviously not what’s happening. Most likely he’s moved on, or gone out and met someone else, not giving it another thought.
And secondly, if this friend is at home, seething with anger over having been rejected, is this really a person you want to call your friend? Wouldn’t a real friend be understanding? That’s not someone I should be spending energy on in the first place (unless I see it as my life’s work to make sure everyone else feel good at all times).
So my guilty conscience is most likely not rooted in reality—and if it is, it’s wrong.
Own Your Damn Choices
I’m not speaking in favor of cynicism here. I’m saying we should own our damn choices, as they are our choices for a reason. They presumably make sense for our well-being, so why ruin something good with a bad conscience? It really doesn’t do us much good, although I see how it makes sense from an evolutionary perspective.
I’m saying we should own our damn choices, as they are our choices for a reason
Admitting you’ve done something wrong is a good thing. If you’ve said something stupid, apologize and move on. Guilt plays an important part in making society work, it has its uses. But many of us spent way too much energy on feeling guilty over small things that mean nothing and might not even be real. Scenarios we’ve constructed in our heads, storylines we play out that never actually happen. What a waste of energy.
If you say “no” to something, there’s a reason. Own the choice and move on. If you said something that you regret, apologize and move on. It’s a choice. Once again our nemesis fear is getting in our way: we find it uncomfortable to fix our guilt, so we try to avoid thinking about it. This obviously fails.
Getting Rid of a Guilty Conscience
After owning my choices, I found it helpful to consider what Oliver Burkeman talks about in The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Will your relationship take serious damage? Will there be consequences a few years from now?
Trivial feelings of guilt often stem from fear of not being liked, fear of not fitting in and being excluded. If you lived in complete solitude, why would you feel guilty over anything?
I’ve come to understand that people appreciate others who own their choices, who stand for something, who don’t hesitate or second guess, and who dare boldly but respectfully state their opinion. Once I made the change, I found that people treated me differently. They respected my decisions, they never got angry or sulked over what I chose. They dealt with it and moved on, and both parts felt better as a result. What a great feeling!
If you lived in complete solitude, why would you feel guilty over anything?
Call To Action
If you find this difficult, like I used to, the first step is to overcome the fear and just start owning your decision. Once you’ve started, it gets easier every time. After a while, you’ll find the fear will subside and it becomes second nature.
Realize that you’re not responsible for other people’s happiness, we’re all responsible for our own. We should all be helpful and kind, but if you grudgingly spend time trying to make others feel better, you’re doing both a disservice. It usually ends with everyone becoming worse off.
Getting rid of a guilty conscience feels like throwing away a heavy backpack. When you free up energy from the drain of feeling guilt, you’ll have more to spend on more important things. I promise: start today and you’ll never look back.
Are you bothered by guilty feelings over trivial things? Please leave a comment below! Also, check out my post on How Leaders Should Put Their Employees First.