Overcoming Guilt: A Technique To Leave “Shoulds” Behind.

If there was one emotion I would love to ban from this world, then this emotion is guilt.

But guilt is everywhere. People blame themselves for:

  • Not being the best possible idealized parent that they “should” be.
  • Not helping others as much as good people “should” do.
  • Not performing at work as much as they think they “should”.
  • Not making as much money as they “should”.

Of course, health and fitness also gets its fair share of guilt feelings…

  1. Guilty for not exercising as much as they “should”.
  2. Guilty for not trying as much as they “should”.
  3. Guilty for not having started living healthier earlier (as they “should”).
  4. Guilty for paying money to lose weight/exercise when they “could” have done it for free.
  5. Guilty for not doing the exercises correctly.
  6. Guilty for not taking care of their diet as they “should”.

Really, are you guilty for feeling guilty for one of the reasons above? I am certainly guilty of that! 🙂

Why I don’t like guilt

No guilt for eating chocolate
I am happy that this little girl gets to enjoy her chocolate…guilt-free!

Once people feel guilt they feel bad for themselves. This is a strong enough reason for me NOT to like guilt.

However there is another reason as well.

Once people feel guilty they get in a rut. They feel they can do nothing about the situation rather than keep blaming themselves. They may try to do something, but that “something” will be similar to what they have already tried. And guess what? That “something” will bring results…The ones that make people feel guilty.

For example, there are so many people that feel guilty for not trying hard enough.

These people will go on and try harder.

It will still not work, and they will still feel guilty!!!

Because you cannot solve a problem using the same ways that brought you the problem in the first place!

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. – Albert Einstein.

So this is why I don’t like guilt: Because it’s a rut, and it makes it difficult for people to think out of the box and actually find a solution to their problem!

The good news is that there is a powerful technique to beat the hell out of guilt! 😉

To apply the “overcoming guilt” technique you need to:

  1. Find what your “should” is.
  2. Interpret your “should” to discover your self-defeating belief.
  3. Question your self-defeating belief. Is it rational or irrational? [Hint:  it’s usually an overgeneralization, or an all-or-nothing belief.] This is where you need to utilize your logic and out of the box thinking.
  4. Restructure your self-defeating belief into a belief that is healthy and actually makes sense.

In this article, I will be using the health and fitness examples stated at the top to demonstrate the overcoming guilt technique.

Let’s go!

[Disclaimer: This article does not address guilt from having done something bad to someone else. The scope of this article is feeling better with ourselves by feeling less guilty over things that relate to our health and fitness behaviors.]

What is guilt?

We feel guilty when we think we are inadequate in comparison to a self-defeating belief that we have. This belief takes the form of the “should”. We sometimes have to dig deeper than the “should” to understand what this self-defeating belief is about.

Let’s address each case one by one to demonstrate this…I will be using fictional names and cases for the purpose of this post.

1. “I feel guilty for not exercising as much as I should”, says Lucy.

Ok, so you feel bad for not conforming to your exercise “should”. What is that “should”?

Lucy: “I believe that if I really cared for myself I would exercise 4 times a week, instead of just 2. This is what people who care about themselves do.”

Why is not caring for yourself so upsetting to you?

Lucy: “It means I am a failure. I cannot even take care of myself. I suck”

Boom! We just got to the root of the problem. Lucy believes that she is a failure if she does not exercise as much as she think she should.

Now, do you spot the all-or-nothing thinking ingrained into this belief? So 4 times of exercise a week is a success. 2 is a failure. This is a big fallacy in Lucy’s thinking. There is no in-between situation.

Btw, let me clear some things up. Most people think they need to exercise far more than they actually need to. If you are exercising to get health benefits, then most studies (you know the ones that correlate reduced heart disease, osteoporosis, and others such risks and exercise) mention that most benefits are gained by going from sedentary to moderate exercise.

Contrary, going from moderate to vigorous exercising reduces  the risk very little, esp. in comparison to the reduction of risk when going from sedentary to moderate.

Thus, Lucy is already a moderate exerciser and has benefited her health. She does not need to do more, unless she wants to 🙂

If Lucy is exercising to get lean, then 2 times per week may also be enough (this is also dependent on how she is utilizing those two times). What she needs to do is change her nutrition to get the rest of the results.

Now, let’s get back to Lucy’s self-sabotage…

How to revise Lucy’s self-defeating belief

So far the belief is…”I must be exercising a lot to be worthwhile.”

The revised belief may be:

“It may be great to exercise a lot, but my value as a human being does not depend on my exercise levels! Sometimes I will be exercising a lot, sometimes not. This is all part of being human.”

Now this feels better, right?

2. “I feel guilty for not trying as much as I should”, says Mark.

Can you describe this in more detail?

Mark: “I feel guilty because I know I should try harder to stick to my exercise routines, but I just can’t get myself to do it. It seems so simple, yet I don’t do it. I feel stupid.”

Boom! Mark believes he is stupid because he does not stick to his exercise routines the way he thinks he should. Another all-or-nothing fallacy.

Well, there is good news for you Mark. It’s perfectly normal to skip workouts!!! Plus, skipping workouts happens to everyone, including experienced exercisers: About 30% of the experienced exercisers skip a workout on a weekly basis, but that number goes up to 65% for people who are just getting started with exercise.

How to revise Mark’s self-defeating belief

So far the belief is: “I am stupid for not sticking to my workouts more.”

The revised belief may be:

“It’s normal not to stick to my exercise schedule as much as I would like to. This happens to everyone. It’s a direct consequence of being human, and having unpredictable events go on. I am happy I am exercising and I am helping my overall health.”

3. “I feel guilty for not having started living healthier earlier as I should”, says Linda.

Can you talk more on what you should have done instead?

Linda: “I should have started working out years ago. I don’t know why I wasted all this time that I cannot take back.”

Why is wasting time bad?

Linda: “Losers waste time. Smart people don’t!”

Boom! Linda believes she is a loser for not having started a healthy routine earlier. Loser seems too strong for this case, doesn’t it?

How to revise Linda’s self-defeating belief

So far the belief is…”Smart people never waste time.”

Unfortunately though, smart people do waste time too. Because human behavior is NOT rational. Even smart people cannot control their behavior. Need proof of that? Watch this presentation from Prof. Dan Ariely…It’s a perfect speech on how our decisions make no sense!!! Go to 12.25 for a funny Weekend in Paris vs. Weekend in Rome example.

The revised belief may be:

“Smart people are humans. As every human, they too, waste time sometimes, because human behavior is not rational. Having wasted time does not mean that I am not smart. It may just mean I sometimes act irrationally like all the other humans. I am happy I am living healthier now and I really look forward to doing more of that in the future!”

4. “I feel guilty for paying money to lose weight/exercise when I “could” have done it for free”, says Thomas.

Thomas, can you explain this further?

Thomas: “I tried to start exercising on my own, and started jogging. I did it a total of two times and then just couldn’t get myself to do it again. I finally started going to a gym, because I figured that paying for a gym membership would make me do it. But I do feel stupid for paying for a gym, to do things I would do for free.”

Thomas feels stupid. And he overgeneralizes. Are all people who pay for a gym stupid, or does this rule apply only to him?

What happens is that Thomas does not understand that human behavior is extremely complex. He thinks he is supposed to have perfect control of his behavior, when this is not really the case.

For example, do you think that people make their own decisions? I guess you are answering with a big YES right now.

Hold on.

Dan Ariely, the Professor in the video above, explained how a simple check of a box in a DMV form can make an 80% difference on how many people sign up for organ donations and how many don’t. Actually most people sign-up as organ donators when there is a box that asks to check it if the do NOT want to be organ donators. When the wording was different, and people where asked to check the box if they wanted to be organ donators, very few people did check the box.

So the behavior was the same – people don’t check the box. However, the decision was very different! In the first case people were becoming organ donators, while in the second case they were not! This is because people prefer having to think less. It’s a survival rule. Thus, the default option is always juicier than any other choice. People prefer it when the decision is already made for them.

Even when the action they need to take is so simple and easy as the check of a box, still people don’t do it!!!

Even if it’s a simple check of a box, behavior is actually very complicated.

Thomas thinks it would have been “easy” for him to take up jogging, and thus pay no money. Jogging is a much harder task to do than checking a simple box. Do you realize how difficult jogging actually is? It is hard enough and Thomas’ experience confirms it: he couldn’t stick to it, even though he wanted to.

How to revise Thomas’ self-defeating belief

So far the belief is: “I am stupid for wasting money.”

The revised belief may be:

“Behavior is complicated. Had I stuck to “trying” to get myself to jog, then I would still be doing nothing. That would have probably led to higher health expenses once I got older. However, by proactively paying for my health, I am investing in myself, and increase the chances of improving my quality of life in the future.

I could have not made myself exercise on my own. It is ok that I couldn’t do it. Even though it may seem simple, I understand that changing behavior is actually very complicated and difficult. Paying is an incentive for me to exercise and I am glad I am now exercising! “

 5. “I feel guilty for not doing the exercises correctly”, says Eve.

Can you talk more about that? Why is not doing the exercises right upsetting you?

Eve: “I feel so stupid. Everyone at the gym knows how to do them. I feel inadequate.”

Boom! Eve wants to be perfect, this is what is causing her pain.

However, perfection comes with practice. You first start as a beginner, and you grow as you learn. Mistakes are part of the learning process.

Eve has to stand strong in this sensitive moment when she feels inadequate. The truth is that expecting to doing things perfect right away is not how life works…This is the fallacy in Eve’s thinking.

How to revise Eve’s self-defeating belief

So far the belief is: “I am inadequate for not being able to do the exercises right.”

The revised belief may be:

“I am not perfect when it comes to exercise and that is ok. This is how things are supposed to be as I am still learning. I am happy for taking action. Zero mistakes would mean zero action. I am proud for working on making myself better and healthier.”

6. “I feel guilty for not taking care of my diet as I should”, says Mario.

Mario, why is not taking care of your diet upsetting you?

Mario: “I feel so overwhelmed. I want to start eating healthier but just don’t know what to do or where to start. I feel like an idiot for not taking steps into improving my eating situation. I have had the same problem for more than 5 years. I think I should have solved it by now. Still, it’s in my present and I have not been able to find a solution. I also think I am using this as an excuse to not do stuff that I know are wrong, like stop drinking soda. I am stupid, I guess.”

I could not sympathize more with Mario. The Paleo folks tell you not to e.g., eat lentils, but the Mediterranean diet people tell you to consume lots of them. Some people say it does not matter what the source of the calories is – it’s just the number of calories that matter. What is the truth?

I am not going to analyze this argument. I just wanted to give you a taste that it makes total sense for Mario to be lost in the diet maze.

Still, it seems that Mario is certain about some things in his diet (like decreasing soda consumption), yet he does not do it.

Sometimes we know that something is good for us, yet we don’t take action upon it.

Again, all this comes down to psychology. No, it’s not about your motivation.

It’s about your habits.

Did you know that 95% of the things we do every day is controlled by our unconscious mind? Think about it:

When you drive you never consciously think about the road, unless its unfamiliar.

Or, when you eat your breakfast you don’t think about the process, you do it automatically.

We use our conscious mind when we need to figure something out, when we encounter something that is new, and once we do, control is back to our unconscious mind and to our habits…

Scientists are still working on finding ways to train the unconscious mind and fortunately, they have made some progress. Thus, if you do have a habit of drinking soda, you can change that!

Here is what Mario should do to change his soda drinking habit:

Step #1

He should find what triggers his soda drinking behavior. Is this something he just does when, e.g., he eats lunch? Is it something that happens when he watches TV? Or, does it just happen at a specific time every day?

This activity/time/location is the cue of the habit. It means that once this cue is on, Mario’s brain asks for soda.

Step #2

The next step is to figure out the reward of this process. What does Mario get from drinking soda?

Is it a feeling of refreshment? Better digestion? Or, just a break from what he was already doing?

Step #3

Now, finally, Mario has to figure out another way to get the same reward, a way that does not involve soda.

Thus, Mario could feel refreshed by drinking tea. He could help his digestion by drinking carbonated water. He could take a break by, e.g., eating an apple or talking to friends.

Hey, I didn’t say this process would be easy! It will take some trial and error until Mario figures out a way to turn over his soda drinking habit.

How to revise Mario’s self-defeating belief

So far the belief is: “I am stupid for not taking action on the things I know I should do.”

The revised belief may be:

“I now realize that breaking and forming new habits is more complicated that what I thought. I am definitely not stupid for not having taken action so far, as I didn’t know how to tackle the problem and thought it was all my fault. I realize I cannot control my behavior as I thought I could, just because I am human.”


Most people find a plausible explanation of why things are they way they are and then they jump to conclusions. Usually this conclusion involves blaming themselves for the situation they are in and feeling guilty.

I hope that by now you realize how unfair we tend to be with ourselves. I also hope that you understand that we are not really in control of our behavior.

So whenever you find yourselves feeling guilty about something…

Ask yourself: “Am I jumping to conclusions too fast? Am I really to blame for this situation?”

Then use the “beating guilt” technique to understand what’s going on, find out-of-box solutions, and get on with your lives!

Ok, I make it sound simple but I know it’s not. This stuff needs practice. The more you apply the overcoming guilt technique, the better you will become at understanding your own fallacies and finding creative solutions.

Keep on and let me know of your results! 🙂

Photo credit: Chocolate- tom@hk

Related Articles


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.