Guilt – good/bad?

I’ve been thinking a lot about guilt – the emotion behind it and whether it is always considered a “bad” emotion to have or does it have a time and a place where it could be considered “good.”

This, of course, was sparked by an email conversation with two of my favorite fit friends – my sis (duh) and my friend Steph who is almost 30 days into the barre n9ne challenge (and looking SUPER fab, I  have to say!). It all started because I mentioned in an email this morning (yes, we email often throughout the day about our workouts, rundates, and LOTS of barre n9ne chatter…we’re obsessed, clearly) that I was feeling guilty for moving my AM run to the PM for today. I am feeling majorly tired this week and I totally blame it on how DARK it is at 5am when Scott and I now get up to run in the morning. In my defense though, I was also feeling sad at missing out on an AM runner’s high, something that often is the only thing that gets me through the day…especially given my killer commute to the office.

But anyway, they both agreed that duh, I should not have felt guilty for simply moving my run to the PM. I’m still working out – hello! And then Steph mentioned some guilt about “only” going for a two-hour walk yesterday with her pups versus going for a run. As if a 2-hour hike in the woods with two golden retrievers is a cake walk or something! So as we’re chattering back and forth, talking eachother off the guilt train, it dawned on me…well two things did, actually.

I – we – are WAY too hard on ourselves. All three of us are workout fiends, we love, love, love hitting up barre n9ne classes as often as we can fit them into our schedule and we love to run, together, apart, rundate style, you name it. So why the guilt? Is it just a natural instinct? Is it innate? Or is it a learned emotion?

Is there a time and a place where guilt can be a good thing? My answer (which might seem a little controversial, I’m not sure) is: YES. I think for some people, the guilt complex is the only way they can self-motivate:

…To live a healthier lifestyle.

…To get that workout in that they know their body is craving even if their mind is trying to ignore them.

…To be a better friend by checking in more often just to say “hi” versus letting so much time go by between visits (yes, we’re all busy, but a quick call or even a text might mean the world to that friend whose missing you! I know I just did that this week with a favorite friend of mine, and voila! We’re meeting for lunch today, in fact!).

…To do well by doing good, versus taking good fortune in your own life and only reveling in it instead of paying that good fortune forward with others.

When guilt kicks in, in these cases, I tend to think that’s human nature’s way of saying, “stop and listen.”

But where does that “good” guilt complex that’s telling you to “stop and listen” end and the “bad” guilt complex begin? I think, like so many things in life, it’s a fine line. Much like the fine line between confidence and arrogance.

For me, this exercise – just writing this post – has clarified something for me: I’m a super motivated person generally, so guilt for the most part, has no place in my life. I need to banish it much like the negative self-talk thoughts I recently talked about banishing. For me, guilt spins quickly into negative thinking – it’s that “stop and listen” mentality again, but “stop and listen to what you’re saying/thinking and cut it out” mentality that I need to pay attention to more closely.

So what do you think? Is guilt always good? Always bad? Is there a fine line?  

36 thoughts on “Guilt – good/bad?

  1. I think guilt can be good when it leads to motivation (like you’ve said). But I think can also be confused with fear, at least for me. Fear that skipping a workout will become a habit. Fear that I’m sabotaging all the hard work I’ve already put forth. Interesting topic to think about.

    • Hm, interesting slant, Naomi. I tend to agree that guilt as a motivator (as long as it’s not obsessive) can be a good thing. But fear? I think that could lead to a bad connotation with whatever you are regretting skipping/fearing skipping, etc. If that makes sense?

  2. I think it really depends on the situation, as you’ve said. Sometimes it is a powerful motivator. Other times, not so much. Today, I feel guilty for only running 3 miles this morning and not 4. I cut short because it was way too dark and I was scared. (Even though 3 was only on my plan to begin with. But I felt good. And wanted to keep running.)

    I think I was probably being a little hard on myself. But I can understand why we do it. I think there’s definitely a fine line. My husband is usually good for yanking me back into reality. But it’s still HARD. I stll feel like I should try and run again after work…virtual rundate?

    • Wow. It’s like we share a brain sometimes with your comments, seriously! I’m SO glad I’m not the only one with these silly irrational thoughts – I mean c’mon, who in their right mind would ever believe you when you say you felt guilt over running “just” three miles vs. four? The only ones that get it are ones that share the same love of fitness…which is a good thing, but it can also be a “bad” thing in a way (as it relates to turning fitness into an overexercising thing which is obviously not healthy). Wow, side topic, sorry about that. It’s late in the day and my brain hurts. haha. But what I’m really trying to say is – I’m glad you get it…I wish we could both kick this guilty habit of ours and just enjoy being ABLE more often than not, ya know?

  3. Please!!!! Stop! Feeling! Guilty! Instead: Be happy about your abilities (as you often are), about your strength and fitness, enjoy the fact that you are able to shift a run from AM to PM instead of being overloaded with terrible stuff in the evening (house cleaning, homework, 2nd job, whatever). You are such a smart person and shouldn’t fall into the trap of guilt. A run at 5am?? Tell me how many people would even consider getting up that time for a run. You’re nuts, my dear friend. So please: Enjoy your physical condition and try not to forget your mental health. *hugs*

    • ((HUGS)) you are so sweet, Julia! I know…you bring up such an excellent point – it’s about enjoying being able, being healthy, being fit. NOT turning that able feeling into something that generates guilt. Thank you for reminding me of that, sometimes I get stuck in “my” way of thinking and forget to see the bigger (much bigger) picture.

  4. I’m just like you with the exercise guilt…and it’s only gotten worse with being preggo! It’s like I HAVE to exercise less – time and intensity – even though I don’t want to. Hence: guilt. It’s a fine line to walk and I’m not sure I’ve figured it all out just yet.

    • Jessica – it’s really hard to find a balance when you’re pregnant! I just had a baby in June and worked out my entire pregnancy, but like you had a hard time at first with my forced decrease in exercise time and intensity. It helped me to remember that my #1 priority and main job was to do everything in my power to help my growing baby stay healthy. I strongly believed that for me working out was a big part of succeeding at that…and you will figure out what works best for you in good time! 🙂

  5. Guilt is such a bad word. Has such a negative connotation. I feel guilt when I skip a workout or cut short a run out of HABIT, when in reality, I should be thankful to be able to even just get out there. I think motivation is what keeps us going for those runs, walks, activities etc not guilt. We both need to be better at not being hard on ourselves!

    • I know, guilt feels like such a negative thing to be talking about at ALL, let alone as a motivator. But I do think it can have a time and a place…it just goes back to that fine, very fine line. It’s hard to break that thinking, that automatic guilt reaction though. But just like other bad habits (i.e. negative self-talk), I think we can break this habit too. It’s just going to take a concerted effort.

    • I’m glad you agree that guilt can have a time and a place – but its definitely not something that should rule our lives and our decisions all the time. If that’s the case, I think it can become a quick downward spiral into badness…

  6. Guilt can definitely be okay in some circumstances. I think it’s when you let it take over your life and can’t seem to be happy bc you’re always feeling guilty. A big thing for me is being able to say no without feeling guilty. Whether it’s something at work, something my family wants me to do, etc. Sometimes I have to remember it’s okay to be selfish SOMETIMES.

    You work out on such a regular basis that there is no need to feel guilty for skipping a workout now and then….nevermind just moving it to another time of day! Silly girl. 🙂

    • YES – that’s the key, not letting guilt rule your everyday, especially when choosing to be selfish now and then. I think we all work hard enough to deserve to choose selfishly sometimes.

      And thank you for reminding me that I was totally being silly this AM – I knew it at the time too and still couldn’t shake it off. duh me!

  7. You ROCK lady, no need for the guilt. But I totally get where you are coming from. Guilt is such a powerful emotion & one that I experience on a regular basis as well. Banishing needless guilt is one of my top priorities. I’ve spent a large part of the last 5 years trying to be superwoman, and it’s exhausting.

    I think it’s a fine line. Guilt should be felt if you do something that is hurtful to yourself, to someone else or to something else. BUT, for me, the stuggle has been defining what “hurtful” to myself really means. For example, if I binge eat, or smoke (2 habits that I use to have) then I think I should feel guilty. BUT, if I miss a run because I’m exhausted, or don’t cook dinner for my husband after a long day of work (which he doesn’t expect by the way) then that’s another story.

    I’m trying to work on feeling the emotion (aka guilt), understanding the root of the emotion, dealing with it, then throwing it away. That method helped me overcome smoking and binge eating, so fingers crossed it will work with my superwoman complex as well 🙂 But it takes time. I think recognizing that we are WAY to hard on ourselves is the first step.

    • Such a great perspective – I think this is true of many of our emotions – we need to learn to feel the emotion before we can deal with it and move on. I think as a culture we just tend to harbor emotions versus dealing with them head-on. The more we get into the habit of feeling and facing emotions, the better I think. Even though it does take time and most definitely has a learning curve, to say the least!

  8. I think that the feeling of guilt is a bad thing but the actions that it can inspire aren’t. I shouldn’t hate myself because I didn’t call my grandmother, but if Im not going to call her because I want to, then I think it’s sort of good that there is a catalyst for it. Plus, the guilt goes away when I do the action.

    I dont know if what I just said even made any sense.

  9. Some guilt is good and others is bad. If I skip a workout one day, I probably wont have guilt (its only one day). But if I skip a weeks worth of working out, I will most definitely have guilt (but it is a good guilt). Having this guilt will make me rethink skipping more workouts or whatever it is I’m having guilt about.

  10. Very interesting. Was it true guilt or just a similar feeling – like you missed out on something or were doing something wrong for switching the run? Can’t put my finger on the right words. I KNOW the feeling b/c I do it too (as we’ve also discussed). Maybe it’s sort of that addiction to the high that you were missing?

    I do agree that guilt can be good – especially when it keeps you on track with your workouts – like feeling too guilty to skip them. However, it backfires when you end up feeling guilt because skipped a workout when you desperately needed that rest day.

    • You could be right…maybe I was just missing that AM high and that’s where this feeling of “guilt” or whatever it was, was coming into play? Either way, I know you know where I’m coming from and “get” what goes on in this brain of mine (often more than even I get it! haha).

      And amen on the guilt re: rest days…NO GOOD!

  11. Very interesting and like this post a lot. i think of it like justified or unjustified guilt. Are you really justified in feeling this way? If so, ok but what are you going to do about it and if not, then why are you feeling this way, and how can you move on from this. I used to feel guilty about a lot of things and took time to get over this but looking at guilt in this light really helped. I am glad you seem to have gotten some inner peace with it too 🙂

    • Ohh great perspective – unjustified vs. justified is a great way to think about things. similar to what RunningTowardsBalance said, it’s about feeling the emotion, understanding it and then either taking action or moving on.

  12. I feel guilty if I miss a workout because I know I have a training schedule that I am trying to follow. I don’t think guilt is a bad thing but I think it can be when it leads to disruptions in other areas of your life and makes you grouchy,etc.

    • Totally – if you suddenly find yourself skipping plans with friends or family because you feel guilt over not going to the gym or something, then I see that as a big red flag and a problem that needs addressing. We all deserve to veer off our “schedules” now and then, and to be able to do so guilt-free.

    • Absolutely. It’s not a swap-out for discovering for yourself what will motivate you, what will keep you happy and centered. Guilt isn’t a tool that should be used that way routinely. You’re very right, it’s one of those nasty hard habits to break, but I’m committed to breaking it, just as I did with the negative self-talk habit. 🙂

  13. I don’t think guilt is good. Period. We can motivate ourselves equally with love. I am a hippie. What can I say?

    There is a reason a criminal is found “guilty” – they committed a crime. Broke the law. Hurt someone. Or, hurt themselves. That is what guilt is for. Not about missing a long run, or eating something “bad”. These things are not crimes and they don’t hurt you.

    I think that motivation – especially with regard to anything in the realm of weight or food or exercise – needs to come from self love and compassion. Otherwise you risk hurting yourself or spiraling to a very precarious place where guilt transforms into disease. Or disordered eating. Or exercise addiction.

    Clearly I am passionate about this stance and I mean it in no way as an attack. I think this is a great post and that it spawned good conversation. I like a little controversy with my morning coffee!

    But yeah – take it from someone who let avoiding exercise guilt put her in the hospital! Not good.

    • I REALLY appreciate your honest and real perspective on this. REALLY, REALLY do.

      You come at this from such a very sensitive perspective and I totally honor and respect where you’re coming from. I like the motivate with love mantra a LOT more than the motivate with guilt mantra (not that I was suggesting we should motivate with guilt, I was just saying that for some people, the only way they CAN get motivated is when a little old fashioned guilt comes a’knockin) But I by no means think that this should be a trait or a practice we should routinely activate to get ourselves to the gym or towards a healthier lifestyle or whatever.

      You bring up some really valid points about exercise addiction and disordered eating, two disorders that are deeply impacted by guilt.
      Thank you again for your honest and open reaction. I appreciate it!

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  16. Hmm, good question. I am like you, if I do less than expected of a workout (like my cut short 20 miler) I immediately bust into guilt complex. It takes people, friends, family, to make me realize just how hard I work. I think guilt has no place, even if there’s a good reason. Say I bail on a workout just cuz I wanna bail on it? Well, yeah, I know I’d feel guilty – I do have to realize though that I don’t do that often, and everything happens for a reason. But I do try to not let guilt drive my workouts – I try to let how I feel drive them, what I see in the mirror, what others see and feel when they know how hard I train. It’s hard, but guilt is negativity, and negativity has no place in our lives because it’s entirely unnecessary.

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