27 January 2008

Is Guilt a Useless Emotion?

Today I wish to question the use of guilt as an emotion. Guilt is typically defined as feeling culpable and responsible for things past or possibly for things still to come. However isn’t this a little odd as why should we worry about things we have no control over? If you got angry at your good friend the other day then why feel guilty today? Please don’t get me wrong, realising that what you did was perhaps uncalled for or wrong is perfectly fine, but there is no need to then place a burden upon yourself which will make your life all the worse, this will only add to the damage the initial anger caused. Having an appreciation of how mistakes can be improved is fine, but don’t view it in a negative way.

Guilt is a negative emotion and as such can be very destructive. I know that I personally have a problem with being too hard on myself. I beat myself up about small things and drive myself into the ground for any mistakes made. This problem is also probably linked to the fact that I’m a bit of a perfectionist. Thus my standards are too high, and I can never meet them. Not meeting my expectations leads me to feeling guilty and aggravated which causes a negative cycle and then its all downhill from there.

An interesting example of this would have to be when I played competition tennis at age 15 or so. Coincidentally the tennis has been broadcasting on Australian TV recently as the Australian open is going on in Melbourne. Or perhaps I should say it is concluding in Melbourne as today is also the day of the finals. Anyway, I started playing tennis at around 12 and by the time I was 15 I was, trying not to sound to vain here, quite competent really. However when at 15 I started doing competition tennis I found to my dismay that I would lose pretty much all of my matches, even when my opponents had terrible technique and were obviously far worse than me (technically). Why was this? Ultimately I believe it was due to the stress and guilt I placed upon myself and how I would play badly due to putting myself in a negative state of mind, by beating myself up internally. Basically I’d make one bad shot, give myself a difficult time about it and then never manage to psychologically pick up my game again. Hence I would make a huge amount of unforced errors.

What I’m getting at is that tennis is a very psychological game. I always like to compare it to a fight. When talking singles its just you and the opponent. Hence if they win a point there’s only one person to blame, and that’s yourself. I’d come back each Saturday feeling despondent and being unhappy as well as angry with myself for having yet again lost, normally to an inferior opponent.

Guilt is an overrated emotion. Often people feel guilt for things they did years ago, and while it is good that they wish not to repeat that it is not good that they live in anxiety and fear of that past. Accepting responsibility is immensely important and I encourage it 100%, but it need not lead to guilt. Guilt is a waste of our time. If you do something wrong you accept it, you take responsibility for it, but you do not beat yourself up about it. Where does beating yourself up get you? Nowhere fast would be an appropriate answer, or perhaps the answer should be backwards.

Try watching a game of tennis some time, you’ll understand just how psychological it is. Not that any other sport isn’t of course, but I suppose as I used to play it I understand it particularly well. Its interesting to see that someone who was playing badly can turn their game around or vice-versa, all as a result of mood. Its obvious that being in a good mood can improve not only your actual performance but how you perceive that performance. Allow me to explain:

Imagine yourself playing a game of tennis, and you’re in a really good, positive frame of mind. Typically that means that the positive frame of mind will fuel you and make you play all the better. But even if you still lose (which isn’t to say that the positive thinking isn’t making you play better), you can still think “wow that was a great game of tennis and despite losing I played a good game.” Unfortunately I was never mature enough to think this back when I played tennis, but somewhat ironically it can’t just be thought but sincerely believed, otherwise the thought is like someone else saying it and you saying “bollocks, I played terribly and got beaten as a result.” Personally I find the first, more positive outlook much better and I think it also helps people to perform better too, not to mention just living a more enjoyable life generally.

So where does guilt come into all this? Well, as I mentioned earlier, guilt is a negative emotion and negative thoughts lead to negative results, at least such has always been my personal experience. Taking responsibility for your actions is all well and good, but dwelling on past and potential future failings is psychologically harmful. Indeed the Buddhist philosophy of “Living in the Now…:” coincides with the idea that we should not live in the past or the future, but rather in the ever evolving period of now. Guilt is an escape from the present, inserting worries over which we don’t have control, over what is done, or not yet even the case.

Maybe I’m na├»ve and foolish to believe that guilt is overrated, but I honestly feel that so much could be gained and that people could move on and better themselves so much more if guilt were at very least toned down, if not eliminated. As the science daily website http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/05/070516081014.htm argues, self-compassion (the ability to treat ourselves kindly) is extremely important. As it puts it: “Life’s tough enough with little things that happen. Self-compassion helps to eliminate a lot of the anger, depression and pain we experience when things go badly for us”. Surely self compassion would be not putting yourself through unneeded pains and anger in the form of guilt.

Remember that getting ride of guilt and hence being more compassionate to ourselves need not remove responsibility. As the science daily site explains: “Self-compassion allowed people to accept responsibility for a negative experience, but to counteract bad feelings about it.” The website also explains how “researchers found that: People with higher self-compassion had less negative emotional reactions to real, remembered and imagined bad events.” It certainly seems that eradicating guilt and with it needless negative tensions yields more positive results. As though in proof of my hypothesis Djokovic just won the Australian Open, despite losing the first set. He kept his cool though and didn’t beat himself up, and it ended up earning him a fancy trophy. I imagine professional sportsmen must have to have be psychologically strong to, else they could not win. The minute a sportsmen starts blaming himself for what he did wrong, it all goes down hill.

So I feel that we as a society or as a species perhaps, must learn to reduce our susceptibility to unneeded guilt. For the third or so time I will stress that taking responsibility is not what I have a problem with, it is doing this by psychologically crippling yourself which I have a problem with. Worrying about all the bad things you have done in life won’t help fix them, only truly accepting responsibility for your actions and by trying to work to improve on how you act can. Guilt is useless, its role is destructive not constructive and as such it should be avoided.

1 comment:

helga said...

I'm inclined to think that guilt is an avoidance of responsibility. If I experience guilt for my actions then I can keep the belief that I really couldn't do better and the guilt is my payment for the action. Responsibility is simple -- if you think you can do better, then do better.

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