We are guilty of feeling guilty, about everything; but how can we break the cycle?
The cult of perfectionism
“I find women are more prone to perfectionism, as they’re more detail orientated, which means they can be overly conscientious at work,” Dr Melanie Greenberg, psychologist and author of The Stress-Proof Brain, says. She believes part of this is that we have been socialised to take on impossibly high expectations and then feel guilty for falling short.
“But it’s also a wiring system. Our ancestors were tribal people, and women were less physically strong, more dependent and mothers. Women may be more wired to be attentive to other people’s needs.”
As our roles shift – more mothers, for example, are working than in the previous decade, while fathers are more hands on than previous generations – we need our wiring to catch up.
Wired to binge-guilt
Not least when it comes to guilt. Because according to UCLA neuroscience researcher Alex Korb, our brains actually reward us for feeling guilt. Feelings of guilt activate similar neural circuits to pride and shame, with guilt and shame triggering most activity in the nucleus accumbens – the brain’s reward center. It explains why so many of us allow ourselves to repeatedly feel guilty about something we’ve termed ‘bad’, be it eating tiramisu or binging on Netflix – and then repeat it anyway.
A 2014 study in New Zealand found that when people identified chocolate cake with guilt, they perceived less self-control and struggled to lose and maintain weight loss. The opposite was true for people who identified cake with celebration.
Unsurprisingly, constantly feeling guilty isn’t exactly healthy. Guilt has been known to increase the body’s levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) which is useful when you’re under attack, but less so when you just keep missing gym classes. Among other side effects, too much cortisol can, among other things, lead to anxiety disorders.
But it’s not all bad. Guilt can have its upsides. A 2012 study in the Current Directions in Psychological Science journal found that people who feel pre-emptive guilt end up making better friends, lovers and employees because they’re so aware of their own behaviour they don’t need anyone else to keep them in check – and they’re less likely to behave immorally. While a 2011 study published in the Harvard Business Review found a link between guilt and performance, with more guilt-prone people proving to be better leaders, and surprisingly, better at firing staff.
“Guilt can be a positive thing, if it’s justified,” explains Dr Greenberg. “For example if someone isn’t acting in accordance with their values, and is willing to change constructively. But when the guilt is more about beating yourself up all the time, it’s not healthy. You either want to change your behaviour – or change your thinking.”
Most of us will have something we want to stop feeling guilty about, from chocolate cake to not working hard enough. In this case, Dr Greenberg says the top tip is self-compassion. “Are you giving yourself the same kindness, care and consideration you would to someone else?” she asks. “You should.”
Her other tips include taking a step back and looking at the big picture. You might have done badly in that one work project, but it’s not about being perfect: it’s about being “good enough.” Sometimes that means it’s necessary to have direct communication with colleagues or even family, about the expectations they’re putting on you, and what’s realistic.
But it can also be as simple as labelling what you’re doing as ‘unhelpful guilt’ and then coming up with things you can do instead. From thinking positive things, to taking a walk, to calling a friend. Or if you just can’t stop feeling guilty, then at least try to ration it.
“If nothing else works, you could try to restrict worrying to a certain period of time,” suggests Dr Greenberg. “If you say, ‘I’m only going to let myself feel guilty from 5 to 5.30’, that challenges the automatic thought processes and helps to recondition them.”
It’s not exactly being 100% guilt-free, but it’s step one to re-wiring the guilt patterns in our brains. And if it doesn’t work, at least there’s a good chance you’ll end up being a better leader, partner and friend.
Need some nutritional support?
Moody’s in-house nutritionist Lola Ross recommends including restorative botanical supplements into a balanced diet to help relieve anxiety.
1. Ashwagandha is the Indian botanical known for its adaptogenic effects that may help our bodies adapt to stressful periods.
2. Ginseng is known as an adaptogen, which may help to support the body during stressful times. It is also used in Chinese medicine to support libido, bringing energy, vitality and well-being.
3. Try this relaxing complex of the amino acid theanine and lemon balm to support calm, focus and better sleep.
words by Radhika Sanghani
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