If anxiety and anger can easily lead us to procrastinate, the same thing can also be said about guilt—an unenjoyable emotion that shares many features with anxiety. Let’s explore together how guilt can lead us to put off till tomorrow what we would better do today.
First and foremost, the emotion of guilt implies that we are reproaching ourselves, in a more or less bitter way, one of our behaviors. Not only is guilt a painful and acute emotion, but it also leads us more or less to the same behavioral consequences—that is, we cannot get to take action anymore because we are afraid that doing the wrong thing will lead us to feel a greater dose of guilt.
When we feel guilty, we are often more focused on beating ourselves up and lamenting on our mistakes than to take effective action in order to correct them. Similarly, guilt often leads us to despise ourselves and to speak unkind words to ourselves—nothing again here to support our taking action.
Finally, when we feel guilty, we often tend to unconsciously seek a punishment for our “sin,” and as long as this punishment does not happen, we procrastinate—deeming ourselves to be undeserving of enjoying life before having fully repaid our debt.
That being said, what is the prime cause of this unenjoyable emotion?
Guilt, like all other emotions, is caused by our thoughts, ideas, and beliefs. This thought consists in believing that:
- I should have behaved as I did not, or that
- I should not have behaved as I did
As we can see, this thought differs only slightly from the one that causes anger. In fact, the only thing that really changes is the target of the emotion. For anger, the target is another person; for guilt, it is us. In other words, guilt is a form of anger directed at ourselves.
It is very important to remember that our behavior does not have the power to cause our guilt. The prime cause of our guilt lies in the opinion that we have about our behavior, seeing it either as:
- Mandatory—for example, “I should have”, or
- Prohibited—for example, “I should not have”
For example, if John cheats on his wife, he will only feel guilty if he believes that he should not have done what he did. If, on the one hand, his wife Mary has cheated on him in the past and that he considers himself authorized to get even with her, he will not feel guilty. If, on the other hand, John beats himself up and believes that he should not have cheated on his wife, he will feel guilty.
Once again, it is not the behavior that we are reproaching ourselves that causes our guilt; it is the idea that this behavior is prohibited.
When we think that our behavior finally proved to be disadvantageous, absurd, and ill-advised, we feel regretful but not guilty. In fact, we speak to ourselves along these words: “It’s a shame I did that.”
Regret, which is a form of sadness, does not have the bitter nature of guilt. Similarly, regret is not usually accompanied by inferiority feelings, as it is the case for guilt.
In Part 2 of this article, I will continue to explore guilt and its ability to lead us to procrastinate. Stay tuned!
© Chantal Beaupre 2011
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