I was 13 and in the 8th grade.
Numerically, I was a hip teenager but in my own mind I was a complete dweeb. The gap between the two of me was both enormous and uncomfortable.
Whenever a situation is uncomfortable, we try to do something to correct it – turn up the thermostat, turn down the volume. When you’re 13 and desperately wanting to actually be hip, you start hanging out with a different (and questionable) crowd.
Which is why I found myself standing beside Peter in the boy’s bathroom, the two of us ganging up on and bullying a much younger, much smaller kid from the 6th grade.
Sigmund Freud believed that guilt is deeply rooted in your unresolved Mommy (or Daddy) issues. But it turns out to be much simpler than that.
Whenever there is a ‘gap’ or a difference between what you believe about yourself and how you act, between what you think and what you do, it will show up as the emotion of guilt.
When I was 13 I believed that good kids (like me) don’t bully others. Yet there I was, in the boy’s bathroom of St. Francis’ School, doing my best Scut Farkus imitation. In that moment, the gap between my beliefs and my behavior was huge. As was my guilt.
Fortunately, the trend was interrupted quickly and I didn’t go on to become an enforcer for a loan shark.
30 years after the incident in the boy’s bathroom, I was working as an international marketing consultant, flying around the country and the world on a regular and frequent basis. I also had a young family at home and my beliefs and my behaviors, once again, found themselves at some distance. “A good father is at home with his family every night,” was my belief. Platinum status with Marriott was my behavior.
Both these incidents are great examples of how guilt works.
All guilt is based on the gap between your behavior - something you did, are doing or are going to do, and your beliefs about how a person like you behaves. The bigger the gap, the stronger the guilt.
Because guilt is such an uncomfortable feeling, we urgently want to make it go away. But until we understand this dynamic of the ‘guilt gap,’ making it go away is impossible.
We make the guilt go away by closing the gap. By changing our behavior or changing our beliefs about our behavior, we bring the two into alignment and the gap – the guilt – is gone.
There is no shortage of others who try to stuff guilt down our throats all the time.
When you’re feeling sucked into traps like these, you have to get quiet and figure out if the beliefs and behaviors are genuinely yours or not. It’s way too easy to adopt the beliefs and behaviors that have been trained or shamed into us and assume they’re ours.
To get past the social programming, listen carefully to your own inner voice and determine if the beliefs or behaviors that are driving you are your own. Ask yourself, “What do I believe? How do I really feel about this?”
For much of the guilt you experience, you’re likely to discover that the gap is actually between your own, authentic belief and the behavior that you’ve been pressured into. The opposite is also true, the behavior is the genuine you, but the voice that’s shouting in your head belongs to someone else.
Regardless of the origin of the guilt, the resolution is the same – we eliminate guilt by closing the gap between the belief and the behavior. We bring the two into alignment.
Now, if the event you’re feeling guilty about is in the past you can’t change the behavior. So you have to change your belief about the behavior. And we do this by using the ‘except when…’ technique.
“Good kids (like me) don’t bully others...
…except when they’re 13 years old, feeling inadequate and insecure and have an overload of testosterone pulsing through their veins for the first time.”
“A good father is at home with his family every night…
… except when his job requires travel and he compensates by working from a home office to spend as much time with his kids as possible.”
The ‘except when…’ technique is not an excuse or license to compromise your integrity. It’s a healthy way to set down guilt about events that have happened in the past and about which you can do nothing now. It’s about moving on in a healthy, constructive way.
The sense of guilt that you’ve done or are about to do something that’s not for your highest good or will be abusing someone else, can be enormously beneficial.
Think of it as an emotional and behavioral GPS system with an auto-correct feature that nudges you in the direction of aligned behavior. This kind of beneficial guilt is like a warning light on the dashboard. It’s a signal that something’s wrong and you need to take action to change a behavior, correct a mistake or adjust a belief.
Make the adjustment and the light goes out.
We all know them.
They’re the sorts who, after they’ve dropped the ball, go to great lengths to assure us it wasn’t their fault and deflect the blame to some other poor schmuck. The saddest thing about this kind of person is the utter transparency of their efforts. Usually, the fault is so obvious that their efforts to duck responsibility would be humorous if they weren’t so pitiful.
The one thing we all have in common with this poor sap is that we screw up. Regularly. And sometimes in a really big way. What separates us is what we do after we step in the doo-doo.
Who would you rather spend time with: The person who makes a mistake, then tells you why it wasn’t really a mistake, why it doesn’t matter and why it actually wasn’t their fault? Or the person who comes to you, tells you they’ve made a mistake (often before you find out on your own) and tells you what they’re going to do to fix it?
Yeah, we’d all rather hang out with that person too.
When you try to hide a problem you’ve created or deflect the blame elsewhere, the trust that others have in you disappears. But when you step up and face the music, your credibility takes a huge leap. “If she’s being honest with me about this, I’ve got to believe she’s going to be honest with me about everything.” It doesn’t feel very good in the moment, but the long-term benefits are enormous.
Sure it’s embarrassing to screw up. We all want to appear to be perfect and our egos take a big hit when we fall short of the mark. Our first instinct is to hide and hope no one notices. But then, when someone does notice, our second instinct is to make excuses or point the finger elsewhere. Every one of these actions simply digs the hole deeper, making it that much harder to climb out in the end. As much as it goes against your survival instincts, resist the temptation to duck, cover up or deflect. It makes you look like the two-year old who covers his eyes and thinks that nobody can see him.
Your friends, your family, your co-workers – they all know you’re not infallible. They know you’re going to make mistakes. And they love you anyway.
When you make that inevitable mistake, that’s the time to show what you’re really made of. Step up right away, tell the truth about what happened, then tell what you’re going to do about it. It isn’t that you screwed up. It’s about what you do after it hits the fan.
When you mess up, ‘fess up. This is a golden opportunity to truly rise into an even better you.
Mountain climbers, tightrope walkers and high steel riggers are always instructed to avoid looking down.
When you’re clinging to the side of a cliff by your fingernail or balancing on a one-inch cable above Niagara Falls, a downward glance can instantly and completely fill your mind with the horrific consequences of falling.
Now, instead of envisioning your arms raised in victory at the summit, or the adulation of the media as you reach the far side, your only thoughts involve a hideous plunge to an even more hideous death.
From this point on, every move is taken, not to achieve victory, but to avoid failure. In the world of competitive sports, you’ve shifted from playing to win, to playing not to lose.
And it never works.
Anxiety is like that. Instead of our minds focusing on joyous thoughts of successful career achievement, financial freedom and loving relationships, we lie awake in the dark, roiling with the imagined ignominy of joblessness, bankruptcy and abandonment. Try as we might, we can’t shake those ominous thoughts about the failure, loss and catastrophe that appear to be looming over our heads, about to crush us like a bug.
I’ve written before about your Reticular Activating System (your RAS). It’s a piece of your brain that’s tasked with filtering out all the noise from the world around you so you can focus on the important stuff.
What’s the ‘important stuff?’
Since there’s is no external, objective filter to tell you what’s vital and what’s trivial your RAS depends on you to let it know what’s important. But it’s not quite as simple as sending a memo.
The RAS simply takes what you think about most and assumes that it’s important to you. So it goes looking for more instances, more examples, more evidence to reinforce the ‘validity’ of what you’re thinking about. Of course, there’s no external, objective measure of ‘validity,’ either so you become a walking, thinking, self-reinforcing feedback loop.
It can be kinda fun to play with your RAS. Close your eyes, think about babies for a few moments, then walk down the street and notice the incredible number of mothers pushing strollers, dads carrying little ones, or toddlers wobbling their way around playgrounds that seem to have appeared out of nowhere. It’s not that they weren’t there before. It’s just that you’ve now programmed your RAS to filter for them and, like the search function on your laptop, it’s dutifully returning the results.
A fun little parlor game.
But your RAS has no ‘Off’ switch.
And when you’re worrying about your finances, your health, your decaying relationship or your job, it’s still on active duty. Your RAS will always – and I mean ALWAYS – take your predominant thoughts, even if they’re about something that frightens you, and go looking for information, people, news items, images, circumstances and any other evidence it can find that matches.
While your RAS is incredibly powerful at its job, it’s actually not very intelligent. While it’s really good at knowing that your predominant thought right now is, “I don’t want to get sick,” all it hears is “SICK.” So it brings back all the evidence it can find for even more ‘sick’ and fills your mind with the results.
Here’s where our mountain climbing friend knows something that we need to learn. There are two sides to every thought – the aspect of it that you want and the aspect that you don’t want.
I don’t want to fall I do want to make it to the summit
I don’t want to get sick I do want to enjoy good health
I don’t want to be lonely I do want to have love in my life
Every thought that focuses on what you don’t want is the equivalent of looking down.
Accomplished worriers spend the majority of their mental energy thinking about what they don’t want, what they hope to avoid, what they fear might happen. And the RAS dutifully goes out and finds more of it.
Most of this goes on below our level of conscious thought, so it’s important to start becoming more mindful of what’s going on in your head throughout the day. When you start paying attention you’re going to see that way too much time is spent dwelling on what you don’t want in your life.
And your always-on RAS shows you more and more of what you don’t want. Which, of course, makes you even more determined to resist the bad thing, which makes the RAS work even harder to find it and put it under your nose. And the downward spiral continues.
The good news is that your RAS is just as obedient if you focus on looking up. When your predominant thoughts are on good health, abundant prosperity, loving relationships and the life that you want to live, it will highlight more things that are going well, point out solutions to your challenges and lead things to consistently improve.
Look down regularly and your RAS will find a thousand ways to have you land at the bottom in a sorry splat. Look up, constantly picturing the summit, and it will show you the path forward every time
You know them.
They’re the ones who phone or email you regularly. And they always share the bad news.
“Have you heard the latest about the Coronavirus?!!”
“Looks like it’s going to rain again today.”
“I bet the traffic is going to be bad this morning.”
“I think that lump on my arm is growing.”
Emotions, whether good or bad, are contagious. Hang too long around the worry-monger and you’re going to find yourself stressing about the same woes. Even a short chat with a committed complainer can ruin the rest of your day.
But there are other, more subtle and more corrosive side effects, too.
The really huge price of maintaining your membership in the Complaining Club is that it gives away your power to change anything.
Members of the Complaining Club spend an inordinate amount of time finding the culprits, passing judgment and placing blame for the circumstances in which they find themselves. And nothing changes. Have you noticed how their conversations rarely change?
As long as we invest our time, our energy and our emotions in blaming and complaining about how things are, we’ll never be able to stop worrying and move on with creating the lives we want to live.
As soon as you place the blame for your circumstances on someone else, you surrender all your ability to manage and direct your own life. As long as you believe that someone else’s behavior is responsible for your situation and emotional state, you’ve handed all your ability to change things over to them. Because unless they decide to change the way they’re acting, your situation will remain exactly the same.
Now, admittedly, it could very well be that someone else’s actions resulted in your circumstances. Your company was acquired and you were downsized. Your girlfriend fell out of love with you and left. The City passed a new ordinance and you can no longer keep chickens in your backyard. Expecting them to or insisting that they change the way they behave in order to please you, though, is a fool’s game. It’s simply not going to happen.
It’s both tempting and easy to blame CNN, Facebook, the politicians or your parents for whatever is happening around you. But it does you no good at all. Because, at the end of the day, it’s you who is doing the worrying, you who is losing sleep and you who is suffering the high blood pressure. Since none of the rest of them are stepping up to bring an end to your anxiety, if it’s going to happen, it’s up to you.
The first step is to resign your membership in the Complaining Club. The other members are the people in your life who can simply walk into the room and completely drain you of energy. They bring the tension, the stress and the anxiety with them and they love to share it around.
Avoid those people who drag you down. Stay away from the ones who always bring the conversation back to what’s wrong. And in those times when you can’t avoid the worry-monger, keep the chat short and follow it immediately with an uplifting treat for yourself.
Step two is to actively seek out the ones who lift you up and make you feel alive. There are others in your life, too. They point out the beautiful blue sky and the elderly couple holding hands. They pass along the good news and the uplifting stories. They’re the ones who always leave you feeling better than you did before they came. And they’re not just Pollyanna. They bring the genuine energy, the enthusiasm, the optimism and the encouragement.
All emotions are contagious. Run from the toxic ones and seek out and breathe deeply from the uplifting ones.
Blaming or complaining about the government, the weather, the traffic, big corporations, your spouse, your kids, your parents or anyone or anything else that appears to be the source of your discomfort might feel good for a while because it takes the responsibility off your shoulders.
But therein lies the problem. When you pin the blame on a person or circumstance outside yourself, you also surrender any opportunity to make things better. Because as long as the government, the weather, big pharma or your mother continue to behave as they do, you’re stuck. By assuming 100% responsibility for what happens next, you take 100% of the power to resolve the problem for yourself.
Misery does love company, but it doesn’t have to be you