I have no research on this to back me up (besides a lifetime of experience), but I’m guessing that about 80% of the guilt we feel is not useful and a waste of mental energy. In fact, as long as I’m making up numbers, I’ll say that at least half the time we feel guilty about something, it’s actually harmful and we let it get in the way of being our best.
I’m not including the ingrained guilt that keeps us from being bad people and causing society to run amok. With the exception of sociopaths, psychopaths, hard-core criminals, and a few notorious figures in business, politics, sports and religion, most of us are ethical and follow generally accepted guidelines that differentiate right from wrong. Deep in our subconscious is the knowledge that we’d feel guilty if we did something wrong, so we don’t even consider it.
But just like cholesterol, there’s “good guilt” and “bad guilt.” Guilt is our friend when it helps us learn from a mistake and do better next time. Did you make a snide and hurtful remark in a meeting? “Good guilt” is what made you regret it, apologize, vow to be more tactful in the future and then try to move on. (You did apologize, didn’t you?)
Guilt is not our friend when it’s based on unexamined assumptions and beliefs. Like what we think other people expect of us. Are you really letting the sales team down if you don’t visit every territory every quarter? Maybe you should find out.
Or when we think we are chronic failures, usually based on unreasonable expectations we have of ourselves: “I’m selfish, and I always will be.” Or “incompetent,” “lazy,” “mean-spirited,” “stupid,” “power-hungry,” “disrespectful,” “careless” and – one of my favorites – “a procrastinator.” (See my post on procrastination.)
Or possibly the most warped – when we think we should feel guilty and we don’t. Yes, you’ve done that too. I know a very competent young executive who recently had her first child. She was back at work within two weeks, everything was going smoothly, and in spite of what others thought she should be doing, she had no guilt over leaving her baby at home with a nanny. And that was exactly what she felt guilty about. There’s always something.
We don’t often question what we think. In fact, we usually spend a lot of mental energy looking for confirmation that we’re right. Consequently, what we think can be hugely exaggerated or just plain wrong. This breeds “bad guilt.” It weighs us down and makes us to do dumb things, even bad things – like going home and kicking the dog. You need to let this guilt go.
Now go call your mother.