How to Bust Guilt Over Stuck Systems

Oct. 3rd, 2017

There is a scenario all too familiar to many of us who seek to better manage our mental health and/or pursue self improvement. I have suffered through it many, many times, and I’m sure I will see it many more before I’m done. It is the attempt to do something we think will be beneficial to us, but because we do not do it, we feel guilty.

A good example is one from my own life. I’d really like to take out the compost every day, and to this end, I set myself a daily reminder, around lunch. The problem is, around lunch, I’m focused on food and getting back to work as quickly as possible, so day after day the compost grows and molders. I’m taking it out every week, but each time I finally break down and do it at a random time, it’s usually because of the little cloud of fruit flies. I feel like a failure and I expend energy on this feeling, because of the expectations I set myself of taking out the compost daily.

I realized this was going on, recently, because despite the fact that I’m aware of this phenomenon, its insidious nature defeated my vigilance. I am now implementing the following strategy, which I think is very much in line with my coach training and comes from a place of self-compassion that I think we could all use:

Step one is acknowledging that the current effort or system just isn’t working. This doesn’t need to apply if, for instance, I was taking the compost out twice a week instead of every day. This isn’t about perfection, I’m talking about when the effort or system in place is achieving no good results and in addition negative results, such as guilt, shame, or embarrassment.

Step two is making the conscious decision to dissolve the system or effort. “I am not meditating for 15 minutes every day and the expectations I have for myself are causing me harm. I will remove the expectations.” I do not see this as “giving up”, although it may seem similar. I view it as caring for ourselves through viewing our lives and current capabilities realistically and choosing to move away from the things that are not serving us.

Step three is to reevaluate the original desired outcome and adjust action accordingly. In the case of me and my compost, I wanted to prevent mold and fruit flies in my home. I combed through my schedule and was brutally honest with myself about when I would realistically take out the compost. I decided I could do this Tuesday and Saturday mornings and that moreover twice a week was not as good as every day, but it was considerably better than “whenever my guilt motivates me enough”.

An important thing to remember is I have only a vague guess that I will take out the compost on Tuesdays and Saturdays. This new plan may not work in the end. If I were my own coach, coaching myself around this issue, and it turned out that multiple things were attempted and the compost still wasn’t being taken out, I’d ask myself: “Is this a priority you feel is currently worth your time and effort?” Because I am consistent with taking out the garbage and there’s no law saying I must compost, although I believe in it very strongly.

Another important factor in this is that of timing. Most of us cannot with confidence say “someday I will have time” because that just isn’t realistic. However, just because something isn’t worth time and effort at one time doesn’t mean it will forever be off limits. I’ve blogged about meditation and I still believe in its benefits. However, when I discovered I needed to prioritize sleep, meditation had to take a back seat. I have every intention of going back to a regular meditation practice, but it just isn’t feasible right now, and because I know that, I have no guilt about it.

If there are multiple things that would be beneficial to someone, but they do not have time to do them, and haven’t for a long time, that is when I would recommend professional intervention. It’s one thing to have a natural ebb and flow to life and quite another to consistently not have time for the things that are important.

What things currently weigh you down with guilt?