How to deal with guilt

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If you’ve never learned how to deal with guilt, make doing so one of your most important goals for 2022…

I have many flaws and shortcomings. For example, I’m blindingly impatient, especially with myself. I’m so persistent that you might be inclined to call me stubborn. And I occasionally hold grudges beyond the point when they should surely be stale-dated. 

But one thing I can say for sure is that I am not motivated by guilt. Never have been and never will be. I’ve not found guilt to be particularly useful.

But many of the writers I work with are consumed by guilt. This fact surprised me until I learned that our brains reward ourselves for guilt. How? The part of the brain activated by guilt — found in the prefrontal cortex — is also the brain’s reward center. Our reward centre gets nudged and, somehow, we think we’re having a good time.

Now, at the beginning of the year, when many people focus on their resolutions (at which two-thirds fail by Jan. 31), I suspect that guilt may be making an unwelcome appearance in many lives very soon. 

And here’s a timely reminder: Did you know that guilt can affect your health? Negative emotions and thoughts will elevate your adrenaline and cortisol. These are stress hormones that cause our bodies to respond when we encounter threats. But when high levels of these hormones last too long, we get high blood pressure, a rapid heartbeat and inflammation. Don’t do this to yourself!

If you’re struggling with this issue, particularly relating to writing, here are 13 ways on how to deal with guilt:

  1. Make sure your writing goals are reasonable. And base them on analysis rather than hope or guesswork. I have many clients who tell me they will finish a chapter, “by the end of the month.” Why? Because the phrase “the end of the month,” has such a nice ring to it. Then, I always ask them to calculate how many words they have to write for this chapter and whether they have the time to do this work within the month. Many of them can’t answer either of these questions. Setting unrealistic — or unexamined — goals is a huge barrier to success. Make your goals small and then hit them out of the park.
  2. Don’t over-promise. Writing is time-consuming and make sure you allow yourself a reasonable amount of time to get the job done. Instead, as the old expression goes, “under promise and over deliver.” Track how long it takes you to write and build in plenty of extra time for researching (first) and editing (later.)  
  3. Appreciate the mistakes you make. Striving for perfection is totally unrealistic. And, most important, mistakes help us learn. You will learn far more from every screw-up than you will from any laudatory achievement. Allow yourself to see how a mistake that made you feel guilty has helped you become a better, more skillful writer. Remind yourself that today is a great day to make mistakes.  
  4. Avoid people who blame, shame and judge. These people will always find more than one way to make you feel guilty. If this person is your boss, seriously think about looking for another job. The market currently favours job seekers over employers.
  5. Don’t accept the standards and expectations of other people. You are you. This makes you different from everyone else around you. Decide how much time you’re able to spend researching, writing or editing and start smaller than that. Yes, smaller. Even a five-minute-a-day writing habit is infinitely superior to a no-writing-per-day habit. (And five minutes a day is also superior to 35 minutes once a week, even though the volume of time is exactly the same.)
  6. Look for the emotions beneath the guilt. If you think guilt is stopping you from writing, consider whether the real problem might be fear. Or impatience. Or anger. Deal with the real problem and the guilt should dissolve. 
  7. Stop magnifying your guilt. If you’ve made a mistake, then apologize for it and figure out how to avoid repeating the problem in the future. Everyone makes mistakes. We’re all human beings.  
  8. Stop comparing yourself to others. We’re all different and we all have our own strengths and weaknesses. Looking at what another person can accomplish will not help you in the least. Break the bad habit of comparing yourself to others and, instead, focus on competing against the old you. Did you used to be able to write a 500-word article in 60 minutes? Try to do it in 45. Or 30. That’s the only type of comparison that’s going to be meaningful and useful to you.
  9. Understand the difference between “busy-ness” and being truly productive. If you feel guilty about your lack of productivity, you’re not going to be productive at all — you’re far more likely just to be busy. Productivity means doing what you really need to do to reach your goals. Instead of answering email, it means writing. Instead of reorganizing your desk, it means plotting your strategy for your next article or report. Don’t allow the urgent to get in the way of what’s truly important to you.
  10. Understand that while you can’t force creativity, you need to create conditions in which it can thrive. I’ve always loved the quote (that’s been attributed to a wide variety of writers): “I believe in inspiration and I see that it’s available at 9 am every day.” Set up the conditions under which creativity can thrive. For many writers, this leads to mindmapping (here’s how to do it) a process that makes writing much more enjoyable — and a lot more creative, too. 
  11. Make changes, instead of wallowing in guilt. Most guilt simply makes us feel bad about ourselves. Instead, figure out how to build a sustainable writing process, so that you can do what you say you’re going to do.  
  12. Stop calling yourself a bad person (or a bad writer). Of course, you’re responsible for your actions but they don’t make you a bad person. Or a bad writer. In fact, the belief that you’re bad is precisely what contributes to your “bad” behavior. Change and learning occur when you recognize you’ve made a mistake, and when you develop a strategy for correcting the problem. An attitude of self-compassion will help (while guilt will usually interfere.) 
  13. Ask yourself, “what can I learn from this situation?” Torturing yourself won’t make you a better person. Learning will. You may resist examining what you did wrong but performing a thorough analysis of your mistakes is what will help you to stop repeating them. Remind yourself: I don’t need to do good all the time to be a good person. 

You’re a smart, capable person. If you learn how to deal with guilt, you’ll become a much more effective writer. 

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Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. The group is now full but there is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours. 

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My video podcast last week addressed how to do persuasive writing. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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Do you suffer from not knowing how to deal with guilt? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Jan. 31/22 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!

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