Guilt: How to melt it like ice cream on a hot day

It's easy to look at someone else's life and feel guilty about your own choices. Easy, but not necessary.

Darren Staples / Reuters / File
A dog licks an ice cream cone during a 2006 heatwave in Skegness, England. If you look at someone else's life and feel guilty, that says a lot about you, not them, and is a sign to take action.

The other day, I had a really interesting discussion with a former reader.

He told me that he had stopped reading The Simple Dollar because the articles made him feel guilty about being a spendthrift and an occasionally poor manager of his money. After some discussion, I found that he often also feels guilty about other interactions he has and observations he makes, like when he sees adult children having a good relationship with their parents or when he reads a website about parenting (he’s married and wants to have children, while his wife is adamantly against it).

Guilt. Guilt derived not from something in his own life, but derived from the actions of others, completely independent of him.

To me, guilt that seems to come from others has nothing to do with that other person. It has to do with you. It has to do with a sense that you’re not doing something quite right, that you’re not living up to some standard that you have set in your own mind. The person you see is (on the surface, anyway) living up to that standard, which shows you that it can be done and triggers bad feelings.

Guilt. Inadequacy. Resentment. Jealousy.

Here’s the big secret about guilt and inadequacy and resentment and jealousy. It’s incredibly strong fuel to get you started on changing your life.

First, thinking about those feelings will often lead you directly to where the problem is in your life. If you feel guilty about someone’s relationship with their parents, that might be an indication that you need to work on your own. If you feel guilty about someone else’s spending habits, that might be a sign that you need to re-evaluate how you spend money.

Second, emotion is a powerful fuel for change. I often use such emotional cues to help me stay in line with the behaviors I want to achieve. For example, the best fuel I have for controlling my diet is a picture of my children sitting on my lap where I don’t look like I feel very well. I look sort of bloated and exhausted in the picture.

That picture makes me feel really guilty and I don’t like looking at it. But looking at it resolves me towards knowing that I need to make changes in my life. A month ago, I stuck that picture in a place where I see it every day. In a month, I’ve lost ten pounds.

Third, evaluating what kind of life you really want can really quell the jealousy and other negative feelings. What kind of life do you want to lead? What are your core values? What are your long term goals?

That decision process is often hard and it can mean putting aside some things that previously seemed very important to you. The end result of that process is incredibly valuable, though. You know what you’re working for in life and why. You’ve already thought through your choices and you’ve chosen a small set of things that you know are important to you – and you’ve come up with a plan to work towards them.

At that point, the choices of others become just that – their choices. They’re not your choices. They’re on a different path than you, with different goals and dreams for the future.

I’ll give you an example. My neighbor runs several miles almost every day. I have never been able to do that – for one, I don’t think my knees could have sustained it, even in high school. She’s in great shape and on some level, I could be jealous of that. But I also know that she’s chosen a different goal in life than I have and I see that she’s working very hard to achieve that goal.

Realizing that changes my views on what she’s doing from guilt about what I’m doing (or not doing) to a sense of being impressed with her and almost wanting to encourage her. When I see her running, I almost want to applaud. She’s got a goal and she’s working her rear end off to achieve it – and that’s awesome, no matter who’s doing it.

In fact, sometimes I take that as motivation for me to do the same thing towards my goals. If my neighbor can work that hard towards a goal, then I can work that hard towards my goal and sacrifice a little fun along the way.

But.. but… that other person had some unfair advantages! Everybody has some advantages. The dirt-poor kid has access to scholarships and grants that the middle class kid can’t touch. The new immigrant has access to subcultural groups that the longtime resident can never be involved with. The person with a lot of ground to make up often ends up with a story to tell – one that they can sell – when they do break through with success. The person with a low income has access to food pantries, WIC, welfare, Medicaid, and charities that are unavailable to the middle class and above.

The best you can do is look at where you’re at, look at all of the resources available to you in that position, and come up with the best plan you can to get to where you want to go. Set a goal, build a plan, and start executing. It doesn’t really matter what other people have or don’t have – it matters what you have.

Former reader, if our conversation somehow convinced you to peek in here again, take this to heart: if you’re feeling guilty about something, you’re in the perfect situation to sit down and take stock of your life. Why do you feel guilty? What could you be doing different? What are your goals in life? Figure them out, state them, and start working towards them.

It’ll make the guilt melt away like ice cream on a warm summer afternoon.

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