Why must you feel guilt over every little thing?


Why must you feel guilt over every little thing?

Today, guilt is a snare used to get you to be a good little consumer

By Deepa Menon  May 22nd, 2015

In the middle of a sweltering March, the skies suddenly clouded over, a breeze sprung up and the hot breath on the back of your neck that lets you know you’re in Mumbai paused briefly. People took to social media to croak in gratitude for this small, unseasonal mercy. But within hours, we heard of the effect of these rains on farmers around the country. Potatoes, grapes and wheat ripe for harvest were wrecked. People died in hailstorms. Of those who survived, some killed themselves to escape loans they could now never pay. For millions of others, two square meals a day slid further out of reach.

If you were one of those who had waxed poetic about #awesomemausam, the news reports might have left you feeling chastened, sheepish and — that constant of modern life — guilty. While you were sipping chai and pondering the sky, lives were ruined. Never was the gulf between Us and Them more grotesque.

So what do you do with this guilt now? While most other ‘negative’ emotions force you to take action, this one tends to sit at the bottom of your stomach like a double cheese pizza, making you feel sluggish and vaguely disgusted with yourself. Studies have actually shown a link between guilt and eating disorders, besides a host of other delights like anxiety, hostility and suicide. Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine found that pre-schoolers who suffer from pathological guilt are more prone to depression later in life. And if you didn’t develop deep-seated remorse as a four-year-old,
don’t worry, there’s plenty of time to catch up.

 

Today, guilt is a snare — like greed and discontent — used to get you to be a good little consumer. Buy this insurance, cough up for that overpriced anniversary gift, read about this frightening health study. Even the news comes couched in reproach — you took to the streets to protest a rape in Delhi, but where are the candlelight vigils over the systemic abuse of tribal girls? This manner of framing a concern suggests to the reader, “You’re a sheltered brat who only cares about an issue when it affects you”. Far from forging a connection, this further distances the reader from the subject. But hey, made you click on the link.

At best, guilt can build empathy and nudge you to right a wrong. At worst, it will trap you in the past, in the revolving door of could’ve-would’ve-should’ve. But in the small, insidious ways that you’re exposed to this emotion continuously, it can leave you experiencing a diffused sort of helplessness. What if you instinctively respond to one rape report more than another? What if you just cannot resist food that’s bad for you? What if you have never once read the offer document carefully before investing? We’re here to tell you it’s okay.

It’s okay to eat cake

I feel bad every day about not eating healthier. Especially during breakfast, lunch, dinner and teatime. My experience with guilt is that it works up a nice appetite. It’s not just me. A study conducted by the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, found that a person’s attitude towards food affected their weight-loss goals. Participants who associated chocolate cake with regret tended to feel less in control of their diets over the long run and were thus more likely to feel defeated and give up the effort. So when temptation gets the better of you, it’s more sensible to make an occasion of it. Tell yourself that slice was a special treat, a celebration. Then let it go. 

It’s okay to not be an optimist

Is there a bigger social pariah in the modern world than the pessimist? Even the introverts get listicles devoted to them on BuzzFeed, but pessimists are just told to cheer up — a phrase unrivalled in the English language for sheer uselessness. If reading the news, watching TV, hell, even looking out the taxi window fills you with great anxiety at the state of the world, then you might in reality have a better chance of fixing life’s problems than those who pretend everything’s just swell. Defensive pessimism is a strategy outlined by psychologist Julie Norem who believes the best way to overcome negativity is not to deny it, but to vividly imagine the worst case scenario and then prepare for it. Don’t worry if you can’t spot the silver lining. Just carry an umbrella.

 

It’s okay to not have work-life balance

Work hard, party hard. Don’t you want to go back in time and punch the 20-something who thought this was a plausible life goal? The idea that work and ‘everything else that constitutes life’ will fall into two distinct boxes bisected by happy hour is one that’s been sold to us. In reality, our lives have seasons. During certain blistering phases, professional ambition consumes your life — if you’re lucky, you enjoy the work. Then the seasons change and you focus on less tangible goals, like caregiving or recharging — if you’re lucky, you don’t have to worry about the bills. Everyone from Liz Lemon to Indra Nooyi has found that the notion of ‘having it all’ is a trap that leaves women feeling like perpetual underachievers. Lean in or sit back, but know that guilt cannot change the weather.

It’s okay to not have an opinion

It seems these days that just minutes after a news story has broken, people already have well-formed opinions on it. And because this hyper-aware type of person is usually very vocal on social media, it can sometimes feel like everyone in your circle now has a fully articulated point of view on a still-developing story. In the next 24 hours, you’ll read at least four opinion pieces on news websites making very interesting points on the issue. In the next 48 hours, a TV debate or two has taken place, and been live-tweeted. Now it seems like the whole world has arranged itself into neat queues behind placards marked ‘yay’ and ‘nay’. Meanwhile, you’re still hovering over ‘huh’. And it’s okay. Online, personalities are defined by the views they tout, so they have to commit to certain ideologies. Offline, there’s more space to toy with an idea without feeling obliged to defend it — you’re more likely to find out what you really believe this way. John Patrick Shanley, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of Doubt (later made into a film starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep), said this in defense of being unsure: “You may come out of my play uncertain. You may want to be sure. Look down on that feeling. We’ve got to learn to live with a full measure of uncertainty. There is no last word. That’s the silence under the chatter of our time.”

It’s okay to feel a little guilty

After coming this far, it seems counter-productive to leave you feeling guilty about all the guilt you feel. So let’s take one final running kick at this: guilt is not all bad, if you can extricate it from shame. American author Brené Brown explains the difference in her TED Talk, “Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behaviour. Guilt: I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Shame: I’m sorry. I am a mistake.” If you can separate the instance that made you feel remorse (dancing in the rain while farmers wept), from the person you are (good, kind, empathetic, a little sweaty), you’ll see that feeling in the pit of your stomach as the painful tug of a bigger reality. It was never meant to make you feel small. 

 

In the middle of a sweltering March, the skies suddenly clouded over, a breeze sprung up and the hot breath on the back of your neck that lets you know you’re in Mumbai paused briefly. People took to social media to croak in gratitude for this small, unseasonal mercy. But within hours, we heard of the effect of these rains on farmers around the country. Potatoes, grapes and wheat ripe for harvest were wrecked. People died in hailstorms. Of those who survived, some killed themselves to escape loans they could now never pay. For millions of others, two square meals a day slid further out of reach.

If you were one of those who had waxed poetic about #awesomemausam, the news reports might have left you feeling chastened, sheepish and — that constant of modern life — guilty. While you were sipping chai and pondering the sky, lives were ruined. Never was the gulf between Us and Them more grotesque.

So what do you do with this guilt now? While most other ‘negative’ emotions force you to take action, this one tends to sit at the bottom of your stomach like a double cheese pizza, making you feel sluggish and vaguely disgusted with yourself. Studies have actually shown a link between guilt and eating disorders, besides a host of other delights like anxiety, hostility and suicide. Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine found that pre-schoolers who suffer from pathological guilt are more prone to depression later in life. And if you didn’t develop deep-seated remorse as a four-year-old,
don’t worry, there’s plenty of time to catch up.

 

Today, guilt is a snare — like greed and discontent — used to get you to be a good little consumer. Buy this insurance, cough up for that overpriced anniversary gift, read about this frightening health study. Even the news comes couched in reproach — you took to the streets to protest a rape in Delhi, but where are the candlelight vigils over the systemic abuse of tribal girls? This manner of framing a concern suggests to the reader, “You’re a sheltered brat who only cares about an issue when it affects you”. Far from forging a connection, this further distances the reader from the subject. But hey, made you click on the link.

At best, guilt can build empathy and nudge you to right a wrong. At worst, it will trap you in the past, in the revolving door of could’ve-would’ve-should’ve. But in the small, insidious ways that you’re exposed to this emotion continuously, it can leave you experiencing a diffused sort of helplessness. What if you instinctively respond to one rape report more than another? What if you just cannot resist food that’s bad for you? What if you have never once read the offer document carefully before investing? We’re here to tell you it’s okay.

It’s okay to eat cake

I feel bad every day about not eating healthier. Especially during breakfast, lunch, dinner and teatime. My experience with guilt is that it works up a nice appetite. It’s not just me. A study conducted by the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, found that a person’s attitude towards food affected their weight-loss goals. Participants who associated chocolate cake with regret tended to feel less in control of their diets over the long run and were thus more likely to feel defeated and give up the effort. So when temptation gets the better of you, it’s more sensible to make an occasion of it. Tell yourself that slice was a special treat, a celebration. Then let it go. 

It’s okay to not be an optimist

Is there a bigger social pariah in the modern world than the pessimist? Even the introverts get listicles devoted to them on BuzzFeed, but pessimists are just told to cheer up — a phrase unrivalled in the English language for sheer uselessness. If reading the news, watching TV, hell, even looking out the taxi window fills you with great anxiety at the state of the world, then you might in reality have a better chance of fixing life’s problems than those who pretend everything’s just swell. Defensive pessimism is a strategy outlined by psychologist Julie Norem who believes the best way to overcome negativity is not to deny it, but to vividly imagine the worst case scenario and then prepare for it. Don’t worry if you can’t spot the silver lining. Just carry an umbrella.

 

It’s okay to not have work-life balance

Work hard, party hard. Don’t you want to go back in time and punch the 20-something who thought this was a plausible life goal? The idea that work and ‘everything else that constitutes life’ will fall into two distinct boxes bisected by happy hour is one that’s been sold to us. In reality, our lives have seasons. During certain blistering phases, professional ambition consumes your life — if you’re lucky, you enjoy the work. Then the seasons change and you focus on less tangible goals, like caregiving or recharging — if you’re lucky, you don’t have to worry about the bills. Everyone from Liz Lemon to Indra Nooyi has found that the notion of ‘having it all’ is a trap that leaves women feeling like perpetual underachievers. Lean in or sit back, but know that guilt cannot change the weather.

It’s okay to not have an opinion

It seems these days that just minutes after a news story has broken, people already have well-formed opinions on it. And because this hyper-aware type of person is usually very vocal on social media, it can sometimes feel like everyone in your circle now has a fully articulated point of view on a still-developing story. In the next 24 hours, you’ll read at least four opinion pieces on news websites making very interesting points on the issue. In the next 48 hours, a TV debate or two has taken place, and been live-tweeted. Now it seems like the whole world has arranged itself into neat queues behind placards marked ‘yay’ and ‘nay’. Meanwhile, you’re still hovering over ‘huh’. And it’s okay. Online, personalities are defined by the views they tout, so they have to commit to certain ideologies. Offline, there’s more space to toy with an idea without feeling obliged to defend it — you’re more likely to find out what you really believe this way. John Patrick Shanley, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of Doubt (later made into a film starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep), said this in defense of being unsure: “You may come out of my play uncertain. You may want to be sure. Look down on that feeling. We’ve got to learn to live with a full measure of uncertainty. There is no last word. That’s the silence under the chatter of our time.”

It’s okay to feel a little guilty

After coming this far, it seems counter-productive to leave you feeling guilty about all the guilt you feel. So let’s take one final running kick at this: guilt is not all bad, if you can extricate it from shame. American author Brené Brown explains the difference in her TED Talk, “Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behaviour. Guilt: I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Shame: I’m sorry. I am a mistake.” If you can separate the instance that made you feel remorse (dancing in the rain while farmers wept), from the person you are (good, kind, empathetic, a little sweaty), you’ll see that feeling in the pit of your stomach as the painful tug of a bigger reality. It was never meant to make you feel small.