The Difference Between Abstinence and Punishment, and the risk of Dry January

Somewhere, someone on your social media feeds, at work, or in your family is doing a month long challenge such as Dry January, restricting their consumption or use of something in the name of charity, or just to prove they can. I love the idea that people want to take action to help others, and put themselves through a small amount of discomfort in order to justify raising money for people who live with hardship and discomfort every day. Whether it is alcohol, meat, or chocolate, they cut something out of their life that would otherwise be an integral part of it and their discomfort and sense of loss during that time feels appropriate and in some way cleansing.

But restricting anything in your life can be triggered by or can trigger guilt. When you are stopping yourself doing something, you have to be very careful as to the reasons, so that you have a clear intention. If you are giving up alcohol for January, the reason you are giving it up makes a difference to how difficult you will find it. If it is because you have concerns about the physical and mental harm associated with prolonged and heavy drinking patterns, then you may feel good at the end of each day that you are helping to heal yourself. But if you are doing it because you are known to love your weekend drinking sessions, and your family can’t believe that you can go without booze for a week let alone a month, your reason for doing it is not so clear or positive and you will likely find it harder, only sticking to it for fear of losing face.

This difference matters. If you are changing your behaviour, any time you do so as a response to your core values and beliefs about the world and who you are, you are taking positive steps to become the person that you want to be – the one you can face in the mirror. Your actions are not determined by appearances but by a deep seated conviction that your actions have consequences and you are no longer prepared to accept those consequences – you want to change. Not only will you find the month long abstinence cleansing and maybe life affirming, you are also far less likely to go backwards quickly.

However, changing your behaviour for reasons external to you – because your friends bet you couldn’t, because others found the idea so laughable that you would even try it, or because everyone in the office is doing it – doesn’t come with the same level of commitment. You are willing yourself to do it, but you don’t actually want to do it. This has a huge impact on your ability to stick with the challenge for the whole month, as well as making the days feel like ongoing punishment. And because it will feel like punishment, you are far more likely to go overboard when the challenge is over, over consuming or overdoing in a way that could be dangerous or irresponsible. Like the kid in the sweet shop, there is no thought of control, just consumption.

If you have felt guilty for a while about something that you are eating, drinking or doing, then such challenges are a great way to help you use the guilt of giving up to compel you to stick with it long enough for it to become a habit. But if that central and (critically) core personal guilt is not there, then it is not going to create a positive change to your life, and you are more likely to be one of those counting down for the month to end so you can make up for lost time.

Guilt and Passive Aggressive Behaviour – If You Say So

Making you feel guilty doesn’t always happen (in fact, hardly ever) as angry tirades of abuse. Its effect is achieved mostly in those small offhand comments, designed to make you question your view of your actions, to make you doubt yourself.

Think of the times when others have been able to adapt your behaviour and the subtlety used. It’s not “Don’t do that!”, but “if you want to do that, then go ahead”. It’s in telling you that they don’t agree with you but they are going to take a grandstand seat to watch you do it. It’s in the lack of congratulations for your achievements but a reminder that they did it before, did it better or don’t see the point of doing it at all.

The subtlety is what makes it so dangerous – you are questioning yourself and feeling guilty and foolish and they have achieved all of that with a smile on their face. The definition of passive aggressive behaviour includes the “avoidance of direct confrontation” and it is this that can make it so difficult to spot and so difficult to counter. There is nothing for you to defend yourself against, as the words used, on the face of it, appear harmless. Once you realise how bad they have made you feel, the only thing you can do is fantastise about what you could or should have said back to them.

So what can you do against the relentless attack on who you are, on your self confidence and self worth that does not appear until it has done its damage

My advice – take what they say at face value. If it is wrapped up in complimentary language, accept the compliment. If they dare you to go ahead without their permission – do it. Don’t respond by questioning yourself but instead don’t question them and hold them to what they say. Passive aggressive works because it threatens without being threatening, due to the assumptions that are loaded into the words used. But, when you take that venom out of the words, you take the energy out of the attack.

This also turns the power back to you. In effect you are saying to them, if you want to attack me, then you need to say it loud and clear, and make it obvious, because I’m going to deliberately not respond when you try to do it subtly. It might sound strange to be inviting an outright attack but they are a lot easier to defend yourself against than charming language hiding hostility.

Does There Have To Be A Word For Everything?

The English language has a particular quirk to it, in that – in comparison with other languages – it tends to have far more nuance and subtlety to it. There is not just one word for things like ‘good’, but dozens. Each one gives a slightly different flavour to the sentences, and it makes us highly competitive in Scrabble.

But this onslaught of vocabulary comes at a price. It makes it far more difficult for others to learn how to speak it. English as a Foreign Language is a class studied the world over, and many other regions just don’t understand why we need so many different words to say the same thing. The contrast is seen when you try to translate between English to another – especially something such as Chinese which is a character set that encompasses whole notions, not individual syllables.

The reasons behind having a million different ways to say the same thing are numerous, but a significant one is the fear that we will be misunderstood. If you think about it, getting the wrong word in the wrong context can start arguments, or be considered offensive, so it is understandable that we will be a little bit sensitive to use the right word to describe what we mean. Of course, the fact that this relies on the other person knowing the words you are using means that sometimes, trying to be clearer causes more confusion. My mum used to say she needed a dictionary to talk with me sometimes, as I loved playing with words and learning new ones. So in my quest to be more precise with what I was saying, I ended up causing more misunderstanding.

Why am I talking about language when this blog is about guilt? Because our need to refine our language significantly impacts our ability to communicate how we feel. Guilt is particularly affected by this as it is not considered a ‘nice’ emotion to feel or inspire in others, so we use other words to describe how we feel. This makes it easier for us to skirt around awkward follow up questions, When people I am talking to know my subject matter, they tend to spend a long time trying to convince me that they do not feel guilty (even if i haven’t actually ever asked them whether they do or not). But they don’t like the word ‘guilt’, so, as they would naturally be inclined to drop the ‘G’ bomb, there is a pause, a look up to the sky and eventually they use a different word to explain how they feel. We both know the word that they should have used was ‘guilt’ but they couldn’t leave it with that.

In recent years there have been huge advances in talking about mental health and words such as depression or anxiety are now used without as much of the stigma associated with it. And that is wonderful but I do feel we need to do the same with our emotional health, and that starts with calling out the emotions we are feeling without scrambling around for a softer word. I can talk to 10 different people and to me they are struggling with guilt but they will all reference some other emotion. And if I mention that they might feel guilty, I get accused of putting words in their mouths.

Am I? I’m well aware that the more you focus on something, the more you see it and as someone who studies guilt, I’m more pre-disposed to see it. It is the lens that I think makes the most sense not just from how people are feeling but also by how it changes their behaviour. Often, the description of how they feel aligns closely with guilt, but the negative connotations of guilt mean they will slide past that, grabbing any other word instead – then argue that it is more accurate.

Guilt as an emotion is difficult to deal with – by design. It is meant to compel you to take action and as such, can make life feel very uncomfortable. We can feel quite defensive and sensitive when it is brought up – and it is sometimes used as an attack on people when you want to shut them down “Stop trying to make me feel guilty!” But we need to talk about it more, use the word more, so that it loses that power to upset and disrupt us, and lets us stay clear in what we actually want to say.

What If ‘Political Correctness’ and Guilt Trips Are The Same Thing?

I promise that this is not a political post, even though trying to avoid being seen as political is incredibly difficult these days! But I wanted to suggest a different approach to what tends to make both sides of an argument froth at the mouth, whether we are discussing political decisions or social ones, such as sexual equality or toxic masculinity.

I have seen for many years the “It’s political correctness gone mad” articles in the media, the latest being the poor unsuspecting vegan sausage roll from Greggs. As these things always do, it sparked off a debate around why people get so upset about things that, on the face of it, seem to have little impact on their life. And what I see missing from all of this debate is the part that to me is critical – it is the use of guilt trips. Guilt is used by others to control our behaviour – so we try to make someone bend to our will by making them feel guilty about what it is they are doing. We do this because it is hugely effective – you only need to look at the adverts around to see how often we are made to take a long hard look at what we are buying and reassess our choices.

But using guilt trips has four possible consequences: Firstly, it can indeed impact and change your behaviour – you listen to the opinion, you decide you agree with it, and you adapt. Secondly, you feel guilt being triggered but you don’t feel there is a way for you to change your behaviour and so you just feel bad about your inability to adapt and take it on as further criticism of you as a human being. Thirdly, you feel the guilt triggered but instead of taking it onboard you become indignant that you are being made to feel guilty and so you fight back not on the issue itself but on the person trying to make you feel guilty. Lastly you feel the guilt triggered and – without really assessing or caring whether you agree or not – you double down on whatever it is that you are being made to feel guilty about.

From my perspective, many of the political correctness arguments originate from the last two possibilities – that the attempt to make people feel guilty just makes them dig in even deeper, and then start attacking back. When one side suggests that behaviour should be changed, it is done in a way that it makes others feel so uncomfortable that they defend themselves by attacking the person’s right to tell them what to do. For added effect, they then do it even more. The drip feed of these guilt trips has been relentless and so the individual issues are inconsequential – it is now more of a fight around who gets to tell who what to do. This to me is the essence of the political correctness issue.

Now, we live in a society where a certain amount of compromise has to happen in order to maintain civil obedience. And the constant rumblings of ‘bloody political correctness’ have largely been tempered by the acknowledgement that you are not going to like everything that everyone does around you. However, we have reached a tipping point, where the amount of things people are made to feel bad about has made the discomfort of not being right so bad that there is now nothing left to compromise on. And when we no longer try to compromise, we end up with constant battles over who can win ground. Our natural instincts towards compassion and empathy for others are overshadowed by our survival instinct to protect ourselves.

We only change behaviour when we feel that we won’t be judged or embarrassed by doing so, yet the antagonism in society overall seems to have got to the point where it is no longer safe to change your mind and so your only other option is to fight back.

How do we change course? How can we begin to listen to one another without being defensive or hostile? The key is to understand this one thing – opinions are neither right or wrong – they are just opinions. In a democratic society, we are all allowed to voice our opinion, but we must also listen to opinions without judgement, and without fear of judgement. One person having one opinion does not mean that everyone else is wrong. Sometimes, the issue is less that there is a right or wrong answer, but that we say that someone is wrong without explaining an alternative. So we just leave them in the no-mans-land – and wonder why there is a backlash.

If you are vegan, eat the sausage roll. Tell people how tasty it is. Buy another one. If you are not vegan, buy a meat sausage roll. Tell people how tasty it is. Buy another one. Let market forces dictate whether demand is there for something that you don’t particularly like yourself. If someone asks your opinion on vegan or meat, say, “I think … ” and don’t get caught up in trying to convince them that you are right.

In the long run, it is nothing to do with ‘political correctness’ and everything to do with feeling that you are being made to feel guilty without the possibility of redemption, once too often.

Let’s Talk About Anxiety and Guilt

Anxiety is a diverse condition – it doesn’t care who you are, what you do, and how you do it. It will come after you and drag you down, and it can feel that there is nothing that you can do about it. Many of the clients I work with come initially because they have reached that point where their anxiety is out of control and they feel permanently guilty – even guilty for existing. They begin to feel that they are taking up too much space and that there is something wrong with them, feeling permanently guilty, but in fact, the anxiety is usually a mechanism their brains are using to tell them that something in their life is not only against what is best for them, but is so far away from who they really are that the brain just can’t make the two things reconcile.

Who we are and what is important to us can get hidden behind everyone else’s opinion of who we should be and what we should want. Trouble is, the more you listen to them, the harder it is to check that it is the right thing for you. The stress, overwhelm and anxiety brought on are alarm bells going off, that the balance has gone too far off centre, and you need to find yourself again.

You may recognise this as anxiety, low confidence, low self worth, feeling guilty, feeling overwhelmed – and you would be right in every single one. Guilt is a big red flag that something is wrong in your life, and my goal is to get rid of that guilt before the brain goes into protection mode and anxiety kicks in.

#MeToo and Guilt

The #MeToomovement and the more recent #WhyDidntIReport is an important illustration of what happens when you refuse to feel guilty any more. 
First up, I want to differentiate between guilt and shame. For many victims, the shame of suffering abuse of any kind never fully goes away as it creates a mark on your self identity (Brene Brown makes the distinction between “I did something wrong” and “I am wrong”). But holding onto the guilt of ‘letting it happen’, or refusing to report it can be overcome with the right level of support. It also takes a self awareness, that you were not responsible for what happened, and that from the moment it started your choices were the best you had at the time. When I read the accounts now being shared, I think there is a resolve and a resilience behind each statement that they will no longer own that guilt and they release it back to the abuser, which is where it belongs.