❝There's no problem so awful, that you can't add some guilt to it to make it even worse.❞ -"Calvin" in Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson
It's a nice morning as I pedal my bike across town. It's cool, and I really enjoy looking at the sunrise. The only downside is I'm not used to getting up this early.
It's 1994, and I'm on my way to my first real job. I got a job working with custodians at one of the dorms on one of the campuses in town. Our job is to clean up the dorms from last year's students and get them ready for next year's students.
I get to work by seven o'clock, and everybody else is already there having coffee and chatting. Work starts at seven technically, but we don't ever do any work until eight o'clock. I'm tired, and they know it, so that let me go off to one of the student lounges to sleep on one of the couches. They'll come to get me when it's time to work.
After my hour nap, we head up to the dorm rooms to take the mattresses out. We have to get them out of all the rooms, to the elevators, and down to the basement, where there will be picked up and cleaned. Besides me, there are two other kids working here. We all got this job as part of the same program to get kids exposed to work. The three of us gamified our job. We have races, seeing who can run the mattresses down the hall fastest, hoping the mattress doesn't clip a door, causing us to get the wind knocked out of us. We make up a game called mattress jousting, where we run the mattresses into each other to see who could stay on their feet.
After goofing off for an hour, it was time to take our nine o'clock break. I'm told these are supposed to be 15-minute breaks, but we sit around and talk until ten o'clock. After the break, we work again until noon, when we get an hour for lunch. Then we take an hour-long break at two o'clock and work until four o'clock.
I'm surprised by how much fun I'm having. Everybody I know hates work. My grandpa comes home dirty and tired. My mom dreads going to work and looks forward to days off. Every television show I watch has characters treating work as if it's a necessary evil.
Yet, here I am having fun. And I'm being paid for it. They pay me every two weeks, and I've never seen over $200 at one time. I can't believe I get this much every two weeks.
But then it hits me. I start to doubt whether or not I earned this money. We're supposed to work from seven o'clock until four o'clock with an hour lunch and two 15-minute breaks. That would amount to seven and a half hours of work. Instead, I'm not sure if I even work five hours even though I get paid for eight. On top of that, I'm not sure my goofing off counts as work.
I continue to go with it because everybody is doing this, but there is a part of me that feels guilty. It feels like I didn't deserve this money.
WHAT IS GUILT?
In their book, The Resilience Factor, authors Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte define guilt as the feeling we get when we believe we violated somebody's rights. This could be somebody else. You may have helped yourself to somebody else's food at work, for example. Or it could be feeling bad that you violated your own rights. For example, you may have set a rule for yourself there you won't go out to eat more than twice a week but end up eating every day. It could even be more big picture than this. You may not have done something yourself, but some member of a part of your group may have done something, and thus you feel guilty for being a part of that group.
The common theme is that you believe you did something wrong, and you feel bad about it. The key here is that you can point to a behavior.
When it comes to financial guilt, the definition is largely the same. Financial guilt could be feeling bad that you violated somebody else's rights - like stealing or otherwise cheating to get more money. This will lead to feelings that you don't deserve that money. It could be feeling bad for violating your own rights - like having a spending target and spending too much, thus breaking your own rules.
A common form of financial guilt is related to not necessarily violating somebody's rights but a perception that you violated somebody else's rights. This is common for people who receive a windfall after a loved one passes away. It could be a life insurance payout or legal settlement. The idea is that the survivor has money but only because somebody else had to die. But remember, guilt is tied to a specific behavior. If your behavior didn't actually cause the death of your loved one, then you have no reason to feel guilty. Receiving a large sum of money when you are grieving is tricky. It's tricky because you don't want to feel good (you received money) while still grieving. It's easy to mix up these two feelings and call it guilt. It is perfectly acceptable to feel sadness. It's even recommended that you go through the grieving process. However, what you're feeling isn't likely to be guilt.
GUILT IS A BARRIER TO HAPPINESS
It's hard to feel happiness, contentment, or joy if guilt is eating away at you. According to author Tal Ben-Shahar, happiness consists of whole-person wellbeing and includes various elements. These elements are spiritual wellbeing, physical wellbeing, intellectual wellbeing, relational wellbeing, and emotional wellbeing. Feeling a sense of guilt that won't go away impedes most of these elements.
Consider spiritual wellbeing; it's difficult to feel like you have a sense of purpose or lead a meaningful life if you feel guilty. It's hard to be mindful of the present moment if you're feeling guilty about something you've done in the past or how that guilt might manifest at some point in the future.
In terms of relational wellbeing, if you're feeling guilty about violating someone else's rights, it may impact your relationships. Relational wellbeing includes having a healthy relationship with yourself, which is more difficult when you feel extreme guilt.
Of course, guilt will have an impact on our emotional wellbeing. Part of emotional wellbeing is cultivating positive emotions and coping with negative emotions. The longer it takes to cope with guilt, the harder it will be to cultivate emotional wellbeing. Another important component of emotional wellbeing is accepting your emotions and finding out what they are telling you.
WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT IT?
Emotions and feelings have information for us. You can't change the past, but you can get curious about the feelings that currently exist. Without ignoring your feeling of guilt, you can try to uncover where it came from. What happened that made you feel guilty? Is there something you can do about it right now? Remember, you can't change what's already happened, but you can stop doing whatever may be causing the guilt, or you can make amends with somebody or apologize to somebody who may have been harmed by you.
LEARN FROM GUILT
Guilt can be good. It's a powerful motivator that helps you change your behavior in the future. It gives you information about what you should or shouldn't do going forward so that you can live a better life. If you can lean into the guilt and understand what you're doing that makes you feel the guilt, then you can do something about it. You can alleviate that guilt going forward. Feeling guilt, learning the lessons that are there to be learned, and applying them going forward is a way to build resiliency. You can grow from guilt. You just have to be willing to lean into it and understand what it's trying to tell you.
Feeling guilty can be uncomfortable, but that need not be the case. Getting curious about your guilt helps you understand the source of it. It helps you understand if there's something you can do about it or not. If you can't do something about it, it's outside of your control, and you can give yourself permission to let it go and learn from it. There are lessons to be received from feeling guilty. Learn those lessons and apply them going forward so that future you will thank you.
You only have one life; live intentionally.
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Related Money Health® Reading
References and Influences
Ben-Shahar, Tal: Happier, No Matter What
Feldman Barrett, Lisa: How Emotions Are Made
Klontz, Horwitz & Klontz: Money Mammoth
McCall, Karen: Financial Recovery
Newcomb, Sarah: Loaded
Reivich, Karen & Andrew Shatte: The Resilience Factor
Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.