Guilt is useful only when first felt

My cliff notes from “Update from the suckerpunch”:

Some think guilt is a useful guide for avoiding doing bad things. This is similar to thinking belief in god is all that keeps you from doing bad things — and both are incorrect. You have reasons to do good (you’re allowed to Fight for something) that are independent of consequences you may face from doing bad.

Some think guilt is a useful teacher of lessons, and that without it they will repeat their mistakes. Fine, but the guilt isn’t an effective teacher if it keeps happening.

That said, there are lessons that need learning, and there is something sort of like ‘guilt’ that can help you learn them.

But you can use it even while completely replacing your guilt motivation.

When you realize you’ve made a mistake, there’s a moment of acute guilt that feels “like being punched in the gut”. Lingering regret, that continues afterwards, is distinct. The former is all that you need to learn a lesson and update your behavior. You experience it as an involuntary reflex. The latter is superfluous, disposable, and something you can choose to reject.

Update immediately when you realize where you failed, and use the terrible feeling to make sure you don’t do that again.

Updating your behavior matters, and can be done immediately — so do it immediately. Moping does nothing productive or positive.

One thing that lingering regret can accomplish is sending a social signal of your penance. Sometimes in groups of friends individuals “form a tacit pact of non-excellence”. Phooey; that normalizes mediocrity. It’s far more virtuous for humans to demand positive behavior changes, instead of punishment. Consider letting go of friendships with toxic elements.

Removing guilt requires you decide you don’t need it, and give yourself permission to live without it.

Emotions generally have their uses. The sucker punch you feel following a mistake is useful. Lingering guilt is not useful.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

Replace guilt with science

My cliff notes from “Don’t steer with guilt”, arguably the heart of this series:

Guilt works in the same way as a threat: You want to avoid it. Feeling guilt steers you toward a future without more guilt in it.

Being threatened with an ultimatum (say, “I’ll break your leg if you steal from me”) steers you away from a future where the threat is realized. If you need to make good on a threat often, the threat isn’t doing its job effectively of steering someone else’s behavior in a direction you prefer.

Similarly, if you find yourself experiencing guilt often, then it isn’t being effective at steering your behavior. You should ideally not feel guilt; conversely if you feel guilt often, guilt isn’t serving you.

Experiencing guilt is costly, and can be demotivation. It can lead to failure spirals: Guilt leads to more failure leads to more guilt… This can lead to boom/bust productivity/failure cycles, that lead to lower productivity over time than intrinsic motivation (lack of external, guilt-based motivation).

If you regularly behave sub-optimally, assigning guilt to that behavior will not be useful.

If the situation occurs regularly, then guilt is not the tool to use! You’re welcome to feel guilty if you ever kidnap a baby or punch a homeless person, and you can tell that the guilt is working in those cases because you never do those things. But if you repeatedly find yourself in a situation that you disprefer, then guilt is just not the tool to use. That’s not where it’s useful.

Employ science, rather than guilt, to sub-optimal ways in which you regularly find yourself behaving. Look for patterns and hypothesize about conditions that lead to your sub-optimal behavior, then experiment with changing conditions. If your behavior changes, you’ve confirmed the hypothesis. If it doesn’t, what else have you learned from the experiment that can inform your next hypothesis? And how else can you gather more data that will eventually lead to your improved behavior?

“Don’t bemoan individual failures.” Focus on the pattern.

Recognize that there are infinite ways you can improve yourself, and you have to prioritize which to focus on. Then let the others go. There’s no need to feel guilty about them, as you are spending your finite energy wisely on more important things.

[I]f you lack the time to change the pattern, then the occasional failure is a fair price. Trust yourself to fix the pattern if the costs ever get too high, trust yourself to understand that investing in yourself is important […]

Each failure is new data. Each success is new data. Feeling guilt is nonsense, as it has no positive (only negative) bearing on your science experiments.

Shift the meaning of a failure from “I am terrible, and should feel bad”, to “time to update my tactics”.


This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

Instance to Pattern

My cliff notes from “Shifting Guilt”:

This post recaps three previously introduced tools to shift guilt that comes from acting other than you desired. It recasts them as related, a theme of shifting guilt for a mistake to guilt for a systemic flaw in yourself; from the instance to the pattern.

Tool One: Refinement. Ask the guilt what it would have had you do, instead. Be specific. And, be open to recalling that none of your alternative actions were better than the one you chose (which melts the guilt).

But also notice if this shifts your guilt into a pointed obligation, which requires the second tool.

Tool Two: Internalization. Recognize external obligations, and transform them into a desire you can internalize — or reject. Ask yourself if it would be okay to drop the obligation completely, to address this directly. If it is a relief to drop an obligation, congratulations: You’ve rejected someone else’s preferences for your own. If some part of you protests dropping the obligation, recognize those as internal guides for your future behavior, and use them — rejecting the external obligation you no longer need. Avoid the trap of changing  language without removing the obligation (such as turning “I should have” into “it would have been better if I had”). “Because I prefer a world where …” is a useful language formulation crutch when forming this habit, but (again), remember to keep discerning until you arrive at a truly internalized preference.

This can lead you to internalized guilt, but guilt nonetheless. The third tool is for this situation.

Tool Three: Realism. Examine your guilt to see if it asks something unrealistic of you. Could you have performed the way your guilt would’ve had you, sustainably? Rule out working yourself ragged. Sift guilts through a realism filter, and you’ll discard those that require you to be more than human.

After applying these three tools, you may find yourself still guilty for behaving in a way that you don’t think is best. “Perhaps you will realize that you’ve been adrift, that you’ve lost focus, and you’ll feel guilty for failing to maintain your drive.”

This is progress. Look for patterns of behavior that lead to guilt, and focus on those. Rather than feel guilt for a specific failing, feel guilt for the pattern — the level of how you process.

These three are universally effective for the author to transform guilt into a critique of his own process, which you can address directly. (See future posts.) There may be other forms of guilt that you’ll need additional tools to shift; construct your own tools accordingly.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

Rest in Flow

My cliff notes from “Rest in Motion”:

People tend to assume the default state is one of rest, and this assumption brings them suffering when they are not at rest, because they wish to be, or think they should be at rest. With this view, rest is the reward for the achievement of finishing your tasks. Adding new tasks to the the todo list causes suffering and weariness by deferring the reward of rest.

In reality, tasks and work are never-ending.

The goal is not to finish all the work before you; for that is impossible. The goal is simply to move through the work. Instead of struggling to reach the end of the stream, simply focus on moving along it.

The way vacations are marketed reinforces the false idea of relaxation-as-reward, and ignores the fact that people find inaction boring.

The actual reward state is of interesting tasks that involve creativity and accomplishment, that make us feel put to good use, when we balance our workload successfully.

And yet, most people have this model of the world where whenever they’re not resting, *they’re taking damage*.

[emphasis mine; I love this phrasing.] We take damage by yearning for the false reward state of relaxation when it is out of our grasp. This is a big problem in a world of never ending tasks.

We’ve dispensed with obligations [see previous posts in the series] — and so it is nonsensical for rest to be for when we are done with obligations. Rest is important for health and appropriate to balance as we go. Rest is one of the “unending streams that you move through”.

Rather than rest, treat your ground state as being in motion. Accept that you’ll have streams of different kinds of time to manage — including chores, but also including restful activities — and balance how you move through those streams. Focus on a sustainable balance all of the time, instead of binary modes of drain/refill. You’ll know it is a sustainable balance because it feels effortless. This is possible by switching your attitude away from high productivity is hard; I wish I were resting. Switch your attitude to: I seek flow state, and “rest in motion”.

Make sure you’re not taking damage just for moving. If any state of being is going to wear you down, then I suggest that you feel pressure whenever you start to move too fast or too slow. Take damage when your life is too boring and nothing’s getting done, and take damage when your life is moving at an unsustainable pace: but don’t take damage when you’re moving through the streams at a steady clip.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.