“It stands to reason that where there’s sacrifice, there’s someone collecting sacrificial offerings. The man who speaks to you of sacrifice, speaks of slaves and masters. And intends to be the master.”
Ayn Rand (Philosopher and Author; The Virtue Of Selfishness)
“Guilt is a useless feeling. It’s never enough to make you change direction–only enough to make you useless.”
Daniel Nayeri (Author; Another Faust and Another Pan)
“There’s no problem so awful that you can’t add some guilt to it and make it even worse.”
Bill Watterson (Cartoonist; The Complete Calvin and Hobbes)
Guilt is heavy so carry it selectively.
I laid in bed staring at the ceiling in my college dorm room trying to care about going to class. I didn’t care. It as my first semester of school and I was miserable. I moved 3,000 miles across the U.S. to go to college, leaving my family, friends, and girlfriend behind.
I felt really guilty about it and spent every night for the last two months talking on the phone with everyone. I sent everyone a bunch of emails during the day too because I wanted to keep up with all the drama back at home. This made me feel less guilty about leaving. When my midterm grades came out, I wasn’t surprised to see my grade point average was a 1.2. I wasn’t surprised but I was scared. Did I really want to let my guilt over the past ruin my future? I decided to stop feeling guilty and finished the semester with a 3.9 GPA.
A few years later, I was in graduate school and feeling guilty again. But this time I felt guilty because I didn’t fit in. I didn’t seem to have the same skills as the other smart graduate students. These students were naturally gifted at reading scientific papers, interpreting data, and setting up experiments. I, on the other hand, had no idea what was going on. At least not in the beginning. I was slow to make progress, which made me angry and frustrated. And I felt guilty for letting myself get angry and frustrated. Eventually, I caught up to things and started to fit in. But by then I didn’t want to fit in anymore. Some of the smart graduate students really annoyed me. I felt guilty about this too. Why was I so judgmental?
Is Guilt A Useless Emotion?
Guilt is a powerful emotion and useful only in circumstances where your behavior needs changing. For example, studies show that inmates who express guilt over their crimes are less likely to repeat offend than those who express shame or other emotions. If, however, your behavior does not need changing, then guilt is useless and destructive. This is because guilt is one of the few emotions that triggers both withdrawal and approach behavior. Most emotions trigger either one or the other—sadness motivates people to withdraw and happiness motivates people to approach. Guilt, on the other hand, triggers people to withdraw and approach.
When you feel guilty, you’ll want to stop what you’re doing and start doing something else to fix it. But what if you love what your doing? What if nothing can (or should) replace it? In these cases, your guilt will come and go in waves. You’ll get stuck in a vicious cycle of trying to change something that doesn’t need changing. On a long enough timeline, this cycle will tear your life apart. You’ll feel as though you’re split in half, with what you naturally want on one side and what you think you’re supposed to want on the other.
12 Guilt Trips You Should Ignore
Guilt is mostly useless. Sure, if you lie, cheat, and steel, you should feel guilty and you should use your guilt to change your behavior. But, you shouldn’t feel guilty just because you want some alone time, or don’t particularly like someone, or can’t get excited about a project at work. Feeling guilty for reasons like these will weigh you down without just cause. When it comes to guilt, you should be very selective about when and how you decide to carry it. Most often, you shouldn’t pick it up at all. Here are 12 things you should never feel guilty about:
1. Lacking skills that everyone else seems to have.
I used to beat up myself for not being able to do many of the things that others seem to do so well. I can’t sit still. I hate meetings. I don’t like going to parties or events to just hang out. In graduate school, I couldn’t sit down and read 3-4 journal articles in a row without wanting to kill myself. I felt sick during 2-hour lab meetings and would take a bathroom break every 20 minutes just to escape. My friends would invite me to parties and I wouldn’t go because I’d rather stay home and write. For years I felt really guilty about all of this. Now, I don’t care.
Everyone has different skills. Just because other people excel at one thing and you don’t, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. In fact, it might mean you’re gifted. Instead of feeling guilty about your weaknesses, forget them. People who spend all of their time trying to fix their shortcomings will never be happy. Focus on your strengths. Figure out what you’re good at and spend your time doing that. Pay the rest no mind.
2. Being so good at something that you make other people look stupid. There was this kid on my college wrestling team who was incredible. You could tell he had been wrestling since he was really young. He was so good that he made everyone look stupid. But, he wasn’t popular. And beating everyone in practice over and over again didn’t make him more popular. So, he started taking it easy on other people. He stopped working hard and started losing matches. A year later, he quit the team.
Too many people feel guilty for standing out. They excel at something and, as a result, develop a creeping sense of dread because of it. It’s like they think they deserve to be punished for being great—like they owe it to other people to tone themselves down. If you’re great at something, don’t feel guilty about it. Feel great about it. And don’t take it easy on other people. Crush them. Be the best. Playing small will only make the world a worse place to live in.
3. Not being liked by your colleagues at work. No one has a 100% success rate in making friends, especially at work. Some of your colleagues, no matter what you do, just aren’t going to like you. This is not something you should feel guilty about. Besides, some people won’t like you on purpose. These people will try to use your desire to be liked—and your guilt of not being liked—to manipulate you. The only way to keep this from happening is to ignore those who don’t naturally enjoy your company.
4. Getting angry about your lack of progress in life. I can get intensely frustrated when I don’t feel like I’m making progress in my personal or professional life. If I don’t feel a sense of growth on a daily basis, I start getting wound up. I used to think that this was some kind of defect. I thought that I needed more rest and relaxation. But then I took a vacation and I was bored out of my mind. Now, I’m comfortable with my frustration. I realize that it’s just part of my drive. Without it, I wouldn’t make much progress at all.
For most people, anger is rarely a problem. This is especially true when it comes to living a successful and happy life. After all, studies show that anger and optimism go hand in hand. A real problem is apathy, or learned helplessness. It’s impossible to improve your life if you don’t care about it or if you feel helpless in it. Getting angry, on the other hand, is a great way to have a breakthrough. The key is to channel your anger productively, not destructively.
5. Daydreaming about being somewhere else. I hate being forced to sit still through super long meetings to listen as someone shows me hundreds of bullet point-riddled PowerPoint slides. It’s like getting a tooth slowly extracted …without Novocaine …while someone is tapping on your forehead once every second. The only way I can get through these meetings is by daydreaming. Of course, once the meeting is over, I realize I learned nothing and I feel guilty about it. But not anymore. Now I ask for the slides in advance, learn the material on my own, and then either skip the meeting or daydream through it.
If your mind goes somewhere else when you’re miserable—good—that’s what it’s supposed to do. Don’t train your mind to pay attention to things you hate, especially when those things are unproductive. Your attention is extremely valuable. Don’t give it away without ensuring you’re going to get a good return on your investment. If you’re not going to get a return, stop investing. Tune out. Daydream.
6. Turning down invitations to social events. A friend of a friend of mine was having his birthday party a few years ago and my friend really wanted me to go. My girlfriend wanted me to go too. But I barely knew the guy. And I had a lot of work I wanted to get done over the weekend. So I stayed home. They both got mad at me and called me anti-social. Later that night, I started feeling guilty and went to the party. It was awful. I hated every minute of it. I just kept waiting for it to get over so I could go do what I wanted to do in the first place.
Way too many people feel obligated to go to parties and events for other people they barely know. I have friends who have flown to a dozen different weddings this year alone, while also attending dozens of baby showers, birthday parties, bar and bat mitzvahs, on and on. Of course, this would be fine if they enjoyed being there. But a lot of them don’t. They complain about having to buy plane tickets, hotels, and gifts with their credit cards. Never go to an event just because you feel guilty. Stay home. Send a card. But don’t carry around a burden with you just because someone else decides to throw a party.
7. Spending time away from your friends and family. Saying goodbye to friends and family is never easy but often necessary. Sooner or later, if your dreams are big enough, you’re going to have to leave the harbor. In fact, never leaving home is a sure sign that your dreams are not big enough. Of course, you should stay close to your family and come back one day, either permanently or to visit, but you should never let your guilt of leaving people behind hold you back. Anyone who has your best interests at heart—including friends and family members—will want you to set sail and find your own way in the world.
8. Not caring about someone else’s drama. The older I get, the less time I have for meaningless drama. When I was younger, I used to feel really bad about other people’s problems. I’d feel bad about them having problems and I’d feel bad about not being able to solve their problems. And, if I didn’t feel bad, I’d feel guilty for not caring. Over time, I realized that a lot of people like having problems. They like the attention it gives them. These people don’t want you to solve their problems. So, stop trying. Stop caring. If someone asks for your help or needs to vent—great—be there for them. But if they’re just complaining, ignore them and don’t lose a minute’s sleep over it. Intelligent people refuse to feel guilty over other people’s pointless complaints.
9. Hurting someone’s feelings with the truth. A few years ago a friend of mine was giving a series of seminars and he invited me to attend. After he was done speaking at the first one, I came up and told him everything I liked about his presentation. He was appreciative but then asked me to tell him what I didn’t like about it. There were some things I thought he could do better—move out from behind the podium, tell stories, engage with the audience more—but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. So, I stayed quiet and let him keep making the same mistakes.
Finally, at the end of his third seminar, I mentioned the things I though he could improve. He did not take it well. He argued every point with me and tried to justify why he didn’t need to take my advice. I felt guilty about it afterwards and resolved to keep my mouth shut in the future. But then, at his fourth seminar, I saw him walk out from behind the podium, tell stories, and engage with the audience. No one appreciates unsolicited advice. It doesn’t matter if you’re being constructive, if someone doesn’t ask for your criticism, don’t criticize. But, if they do ask you, let it rip and don’t feel bad about it.
10. Finding someone else really annoying for no reason at all. There was this kid on my wrestling team in college who I just couldn’t stand. I don’t know what it was, but he just rubbed me the wrong way. I didn’t hate him or anything. I just didn’t like him that much. I had a similar experience with someone I worked with in graduate school. I felt really guilty about not liking these people. I beat myself up for being judgmental, not accepting, shallow—whatever. The twisted thing is that I started to resent these people because I felt guilty about not liking them.
There’s always going to be someone who rubs you the wrong way for no reason at all. Don’t fight it and don’t feel guilty about it. Accept that you’re not going to connect with everyone. Be polite. Be cordial. But don’t be fake and don’t try to force a relationship. Most importantly, don’t resent the other person because you feel this way. Just let things be.
11. Feeling distracted and bored at work. I was really bored during my last year of graduate school. I had published two papers, lined up a job in industry, and was ready to transition out. But my advisor wasn’t ready to let me leave. He wanted to squeeze one more year of work out of me. When I asked him why he wouldn’t let me leave, he told me I wasn’t ready and I needed to stay and sacrifice some more. So, I stayed. I did experiments, read papers, and went through the motions of being a graduate student. But my heart wasn’t in it anymore. I had moved on mentally. I remember feeling completely empty and apathetic every time I showed up to the lab in morning. I’d sit down and get on the Internet, looking for anything to distract me. I felt guilty about being bored and distracted but was too de-energized to do anything bout it.
Feeling bored and distracted is not a bad thing. Usually it’s just a sign that you need to move onto something new. You’re bored because your mind has expanded and is no longer fully occupied by the things you’ve been doing. Or, it’s a sign you need to take a break after an intense learning period because your mind needs to consolidate everything. Either way, you shouldn’t beat yourself up. And you shouldn’t just keep doing what you’re doing simply because someone asks you to make a sacrifice.
12. Making something happen for yourself. I got sick of feeling bored and guilty at the end of graduate school and decided to start some projects of my own. I started this blog and I started creating a business plan for my first online product. I told some of the other students and professors what I was doing and they said it was a waste of time. They also said I shouldn’t have time to work on my own projects. “Maybe they were right” I thought. But I kept working on my own projects anyway.
The best thing you can do for your life is make something happen for yourself. This is always true. Whether you want to be a successful entrepreneur, artist, author, or inventor, the act of creating value will add value back into your life. When you take initiative, you become a better person. You also make the world a better place. Your self-directed action inspires other people to take self-directed action.
Sure, some people will come against you. Some people will try to make you feel small or stupid or guilty for it. But these people never last. The key is keep pushing forward and refusing to feel guilty. Never feel bad about making something happen for yourself. Take action, without fear, and don’t feel bad for it.
Which of the above examples have you felt guilty about in the past?
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