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.