Using Guilt to Motivate and Transform!
One of my favorite Indian dishes is Okra aka Lady’s fingers, those long green 3-4” pods that came to India from North-East Africa, stir-fried by mother with a long slivers of onions, chunks of tomatoes, ginger and garlic, and assortment of spices, and served with warm rotis or rice with a touch of yogurt to cool the first hit of hotness. When I was about 10 years old, my mother waxed profusely about the latest scientific evidence that showed okra contained phosphorus, an important nutrient for the human brain. Coincidentally, I scored 100% in a math test, the day I had a good portion of her okra dish! Okra dishes soon became part of my meals on the days I had my math exams!
Now, like any good mother, my mother realized that logic and “scientific” evidence were not enough to motivate me. She used a wide range of “behavioral modification” techniques, my father’s contributions remained “Listen to Your Mother” and “Find a book for that answer”. My mother taught me the power of guilt at a very young age. She used it liberally in cases where she needed a quick response or where patient logical explanations did not produce the right results. If it was a choice between hanging out with friends or helping her with shopping – guilt was used to get quick results. She would use liberal praise when I did what she wanted. As a teenager, I often called on her tactics. I would tease her about using EB/Emotional Blackmail, a unique combination of fear, sense of duty and guilt to manipulate me into doing the right thing.
Research shows that guilt has its benefits in helping us to transform our lives. A study of criminals, found those who felt guilty, were less likely to break the law again than those who felt no guilt. The researchers measured “guilt” and “shame” levels in around 500 inmates in a prison outside Washington DC using hypothetical questions. They followed these inmates for a year after their release. Criminals with sense of guilt did not reoffend as often as those with no sense of guilt.
Guilt is focused on behavior; shame on the sense of our being. It appears that people who have guilt, seem to want to correct the harm they have caused.
Check out the TOSCA test below that will give you an idea of the mix of guilt, self-talk, shame self-talk and blaming others that you do. You can score yourself and see your score in comparison to the average values (different for each gender).
If you score high on guilt, you probably follow these steps already
1. You take time to journal or think about behaviors that do not serve you well and are aware of your own “rules”
2. Your contemplation often guides you to take corrective steps
3. Even if you have some miss-steps, the sense of discomfort drives to comply with your “rules:
Please understand misplaced guilt or very high levels of guilt are not productive and cannot be used to sustain change. You have to use a mix of guilt and positive emotions to transform your life. For example, in my mid-30s, I felt very guilty about not making healthy choices due to my busy work-life. I put on weight, I had low levels of energy and I feel sick often. These results, in turn, drove me to healthier eating and working out regularly. That was not enough - it was my love of walking and biking and the delicious healthy foods that my wife cooked that sustained the changes I made. Carrot and stick works well for most of us! What are your carrots and sticks?!
Shame, on the other hand, can hamper us and even immobilize us. The sense of hurt and pain can be considerable. We often feel alone and helpless with pain. Recently, a professional photographer confessed that she hated my photograph in our local yoga studio. I thought it was cute photograph shot by one of my friends; it was goofy and it featured a stuffed monkey on my shoulder (Get it? – get that monkey off my back!). My face flushed with a sense of shame. She went on to tell me that the photos of other instructors were shot professionally. My first reaction was to be very defensive and to blurt out I did not care about “my looks”. But I bit my tongue and thought it through. I was surprised at my feelings of shame and inadequacy but I took time to do a reality check. I respect this lady’s photography skills and professional opinions. I also knew that she was a good person and she was not trying to belittle me or be mean to me. The very act of acknowledging my shame helped me deal with it. She offered to shoot another photo and offer me a choice of photos. I accepted that offer. Take time to explore your shame.
1. Sharing and exploring your shame is very helpful. I recommend you set a timer and just write about your shame for 15 minutes or more.
2. It helps to see the big picture and realize that you are not alone with this problem
3. Connecting with trusted family and friends or a competent professional therapist can help you do a reality check
4. Being objective about your inner needs is helpful, in contrast to just focusing on your painful feelings of shame
I hope you realize these are simple yet hard steps to follow. I urge you to continue your meditation/mindfulness practices. Research shows people who meditate regularly show significant positive changes to parts of the brain that helps us be aware of our strong emotions and control them.
My mother was right. In addition to regular exercise and meditation, a good nutrition program is an important part of brain health! My wife and I do eat okra regularly.
Feel free to stop or opt out of these exercises if you feel overwhelmed or uncomfortable. This is an article in inner/ mind skills, not therapy. If shame or guilt have a considerable negative impact on your life, please consider going to a professional therapist.
(TOSCA) Test of Self-Conscious Affect Version 3 Retrieved from http://patiencetaba.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/TOSCA-SRC.pdf
If the above link does not work, google other websites for this test.
Rising Strong by Brené Brown (Aug 25, 2015)
The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brene Brown (Sep 1, 2010)
The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self--Not Just Your "Good" Self--Drives Success and Fulfillment (Sep 1, 2015) by Todd Kashdan/ Robert Biswas
Interested in learning more . . . check out this video on my workshop and personal coaching steps on this topic.
a guided finger meditation
Engage your senses with soothing music, guided imagery and a labyrinth tracing activity which leverages the power of touch. Click the album cover to learn more.