Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about guilt, motivation, and the close ties between the two.
This past weekend, I celebrated my 23rd birthday and took “treat yo’ self” to a whole new level. After a few indulgent nights of cheeseburgers, spaghetti, and ice cream, I was ready to get back to my normal routine of smoothies and weight-training. I did feel a little guilt (and a lot of bloat), but I wasn’t condemning myself over the calories I’d eaten.
I realized my desire to resume my healthy habits wasn’t out of shame–it’s because I genuinely feel better when I’m good to my body.
When I eat well and stay active, my body thanks me.
I have energy. I sleep better. I feel more positive.
I began thinking about the drastic differences between what motivated me in the past in comparison to what motivates me in the present.
I’m grateful to be in a place in life where I’m more apt to motivate myself through positive self-talk rather than deprecating self-shame.
But that’s not how I’ve always operated.
I’d like to share a part of my story with you and how I’ve battled perfectionism and guilt over the years.
This is the conclusion I’ve come to: a guilt-ridden life is a toxic life.
GUILT CREATES UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS
My first three years of college were a whirlwind of full 18 hour semesters, all-nighters, and isolation. In addition to school, I waited tables 20-25 hours a week.
Although my body and mind were exhausted, I continued to shuffle through life as a busybody, weighed down by unrealistic expectations of myself.
My worth was completely intertwined with how busy I could keep my schedule and how many responsibilities I could juggle at one time.
I didn’t feel good enough so I was perpetually scrambling to compensate for my lack of self-worth. I felt my value slightly increase with each task I checked off my to-do list.
Guilt and a looming sense of obligation kept me running at 100 miles an hour and it left me feeling absolutely miserable.
GUILT FOSTERS AN UNHEALTHY MINDSET
My lofty expectations for myself also included staying in shape, and I did so through strict dieting and working out 4-5 times a week. Needless to say, I’m a huge proponent of healthy living–but I haven’t always approached health with a balanced mindset.
In the past, my efforts towards a healthy lifestyle weren’t rooted in self-respect–rather, I’d workout and eat less because of the nagging sense that I needed to in order to validate myself as a human being. I felt I needed to punish myself. I wanted to make myself–both literally and figuratively–smaller.
In an attempt to erase the lingering shame from a Taco Bell run or a Netflix binge, I’d launch into wild frenzies of low-carb dieting and frantic workouts to compensate for my behavior.
I’m not sure the precise moment when it began, but I know this guilt-fueled lifestyle started early. Recently, I came across a diary I’d written in as a middle schooler. I recorded a detailed weight loss plan I’d set as an 11-year-old–an 11-year old who in no way, shape, or form needed to lose weight.
On lined paper, I neatly wrote a daily calorie limit for each day (which was far too low for an adolescent) and a daily exercise goal (which was far too rigorous for the amount of food I planned to consume.)
I was fortunate enough to grow up around people who weren’t critical of my body, so this idea to lose weight wasn’t planted by a parent or friend. I think my intense 11-year-old self was operating out of the guilt-ridden mentality that’s common in our culture. I felt a sense of duty to some amorphous figure who I felt obligated to workout and eat right for, and a massive cloud of guilt when I failed to reach these standards.
These toxic thoughts would come and go throughout adolescence, but intensified towards the end of high school and steadily surged throughout college.
When I was 17, I resumed the practice of counting calories. I examined each morsel of food I ate throughout the day–how many grams of fat? Of protein? Had I gone over my sugar intake for the day? These questions riddled my mind and soon became the center of my attention. I was limiting myself to roughly 1200 calories per day and exercising rigorously twice a day.
When I went over this calorie limit, I’d feel crushed. The guilt was unbearable, and it kept me in a constant state of fear over failing again.
Guilt inspired a few short-term lifestyle changes–but the goals I set for myself were unhealthy and my spirit was perpetually drained. The inevitable guilt that followed minor slip-ups would make me feel hopeless and weak.
My personality slowly faded from a bright, inquisitive demeanor to a self-obsessed, insecure shell of a person. I replaced the things that once brought me joy–reading, hanging out with friends, playing soccer–with exercise and anxious, ritualistic counting. I was consumed and constantly preoccupied over how much I had eaten and how much I had exercised. I had always eaten too much–never exercised enough. I lost about 35 pounds within the span of 6 months or so. Along with this weight was my confidence. My friends. My energy. Myself.
Sometimes my brain can be demanding and downright mean. Looking back at this period of my life, I cringe.
I wish I had been nicer to myself. I wish I could go back in time, look this sallow version of myself, and give her a hug. I wish I could tell her it was perfectly fine to enjoy herself. To eat cake on her 18th birthday. To stay up late into the night with her giggly friends and eat pizza.
I thought self-deprivation would make me like myself more. It didn’t.
During this period I didn’t treat myself with an ounce of respect. Looking back, I realize that I would have never demanded from others the same standards I expected of myself.
The dieting and the exercise weren’t a means to a healthier heart or stronger muscles. They were acts of rigorous self-denial that distracted and temporarily eased a deeper discontent.
Fast forward a few years, and I’ve developed a much more balanced outlook. I’ve learned to not disrespect my body by under-eating and overexercising. I’ve also learned to not let guilt steer me into self-defeating patterns of unrealistic expectations, guilt, and hopelessness.
My journey back to a healthy mindset has been a long process and it is ongoing. Sometimes I find my brain veering off into toxic patterns again–but I’ve become better at guiding my mind back into a healthier place that doesn’t equivocate my self-worth with my body.
GUILT IS SELF-DEFEATING AND
DOESN’T LEAD TO LONG-LASTING CHANGES
With a more balanced mindset, I’ve been able to stay fit without being consumed by negative, defeating thoughts.
I’ve fallen in love with exercise again. I eat nutritious foods because they give me energy.
I’ve stuck to a fitness regimen by continually reminded myself of the benefits I’m gaining from exercising and eating well. I’m happier and more consistent when I’m affirming myself–and I’m much more likely to work harder when I feel capable of doing so.
Our brains are wired to respond most favorably to positive reinforcement. Even if you have realistic goals–but those goals are founded on self-condemnation and punishment–it’s unlikely that you’ll undergo any lasting transformations.
It makes sense: If I were to look in the mirror each time I worked out and told myself that I wasn’t good enough or fit enough–why would I want to continue? If I don’t think I’m capable of reaching my goal, then why bother?
Whether or not we are conscious of it, we tend to internalize negativity and let it shape our perceptions and behaviors.
If you’re haunted by guilt, you may feel trapped in a state of paralysis, unable to move on from your past mistakes. You may be all-too-familiar with this loop:
I’ve seen the benefits of positive reinforcement in multiple areas of my life. In the workplace, a few encouraging comments from a boss have given me a boost of energy that motivates me to work that much harder. If my boss believed I was a great employee, I started acting like one! When a soccer coach congratulated me on a well-executed play, I’d feel a burst of confidence and start acting like the player he perceived me to be.
When other people encourage us, it’s easy to acknowledge the power of positive reinforcement–but there are many situations where the only feedback you’re receiving is your own inner monologue. That’s why it’s so crucial to be your own cheerleader. Become your own ally–not a taunting bully reminding you of your past mistakes.
Guilt simply keeps you reeling through a negativity loop of mistakes, guilt, and self-doubt that keeps your focus in the past rather than the present.
Understand this: no amount of shame can change what happened in the past.
Shame simply keeps you from moving forward.
I want to challenge you to reassess your motivation and evaluate the role that guilt plays in your life.
It’s silly to think that we can avoid guilt completely. Sometimes guilt is the nudge we need to let us know when we need to apologize or break a bad habit.
I’m not trying to erase your conscience–what I’m trying to steer you away from is the lingering guilt that serves no other purpose than to drag you down into a pit of self-condemnation. I’d like to help you stop the shame spiraling that commences as soon as you slip-up.
Instead of focusing on your slip-ups, celebrate the small victories. Enthusiastically congratulate yourself on days you complete a tough workout. When you don’t have the best day, don’t fixate on it. Don’t beat yourself up and drown in a pool of guilt. Recognize that guilt leads unrealistic expectations. Guilt fosters a self-defeating, unhealthy mindset.
Break free from the guilt trap: When you make a mistake, I challenge you to objectively view the situation. Understand what led you to make the mistake–what behaviors or circumstances may have led you to fall–and then move on. Get up the next day, shake it off, and start over again.
Don’t let guilt keep you from seizing the abundant possibilities of tomorrow.
Respect yourself, forgive yourself, and by all means, love yourself.