A guilt loop can sap your energy if you don’t know how to stop it
Do you feel like you should be working when you’re at home, but when you’re at work you feel guilty about something at home? You know this loop saps your energy but you don’t know how to stop it. These three steps will blast away your guilt loop.
Guilt is natural because your brain is designed to scan for threats, and social threats are survival threats to the brain we’ve inherited from earlier mammals. So as soon as you relieve a threat, your brain goes looking for the next most pressing threat. Does this sound like a no-win situation? The more successful you are at putting out fires, the more your brain searches for another fire to put out. If you hate your brain for doing this, you will be at war with yourself forever. Instead, simply accept the primal operating system inside you and thank it for its concern. Your inner mammal wants you to be safe, so pet it and remind it that you’re okay.
When you put out a fire, pause to celebrate before you rush to the next fire. This may feel risky or selfish at first. You may have learned that it’s wrong to feel good when others feel bad. If that were true, no one in human history would ever have felt good. You can feel good in a world full of threats if you give yourself permission to enjoy your accomplishments. Not just the big “someday” accomplishments—you can accomplish something worth celebrating every hour. Celebrating doesn’t mean putting something in your mouth that has long-term side-effects. It means dwelling on the pleasure of having solved a problem.
We are often told not to judge, but judging is how the brain works. It constantly takes in new information and decides whether an adjustment is warranted. If you don’t make a judgment, you’re stuck. Frozen. So the next time you feel a guilt loop coming on, find the new information that triggered it and evaluate it for one minute. Just one. That’s long enough to decide whether to persist in the direction you were headed or shift course. You can’t solve the problem in one minute, but you will know whether to interrupt your current priorities or persevere in what you were doing. If the guilt lingers, pull out your ACE and Accept and Celebrate again before you allow yourself one more minute to Evaluate.
You will always be torn in different directions because your brain is designed to make wise decisions about where to invest your energy. If you were a gazelle, you’d be torn between the dry patch of grass that’s safely near the herd and the lush greener pasture that puts you in an exposed position. Fortunately, evaluating these options is exactly the job your brain evolved to do. Much more about our mammalian neurochemistry in my book Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin, & Endorphin Levels.
-Loretta G. Breuning, PhD