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Can Guilt Be Good?

During a run around the reservoir in Central Park this morning, I talked shop with one of my favorite doctors, Mary Wendt. Mary is the founder of Get Waisted, and deploys an awful lot of science and psychology in her quest to help people achieve a healthy weight.

At one point, she brought up the concept of guilt. We feel guilty about lots of things, she mused, but gluttony no longer seems to be one of them. Might restoring a little healthy guilt help us resist temptation and make better food choices?

That stopped me in my tracks. (Literally. My feet were killing me 😉

At first blush, I don't like guilt. Taken to an extreme, feeling guilt about food translates into using healthy food to punish ourselves for the unhealthy food. As in, “I'm going to eat a salad for dinner because I ordered the eclair at lunch.”

When we associate food with punishment, we're not real motivated to consume it. Which makes shifting our diets even harder. Who wants to reduce the amount of pleasure and increase the amount of displeasure in their life? Totally unsustainable.

And yet…

There's something powerful in what Dr Mary said about gluttony no longer triggering guilt like it used to. The other six “deadly sins” (greed, lust, sloth, excessive pride, inordinate anger, and malicious envy) still evoke feelings of “badness” in most folks. Gluttony lacks that sting anymore. Now it's seen as weakness, as lack of self-control, as evidence of self-loathing.

What if we encouraged people to think of gluttony – overeating, or eating overly rich foods, or fetishizing hyper-palatable foods – as a moral issue?

Would it backfire? Would it empower? Would it change the conversation in a useful way?

Is guilt too dangerous and powerful to deploy in the service of positive change?

Or might a few metaphorical (or real) Hail Marys give people a tool for confronting their temptations in a more powerful way.

I haven't thought this through. I'd love to hear your thoughts. Please share them in the comments section below.

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5 comments on “Can Guilt Be Good?

  1. Rebecca Benedict says:

    I think this concept is turned around. People do feel guilty when they eat too much or unhealthy foods. I think the biggest problem is apathy, most people have tried so many diets and they fail again and again so they end up saying whats the point!

    1. Howard says:

      Thanks for your perspective, Rebecca.

      Perhaps what I’m getting at is that as a culture, there’s no guilt around overconsumption. So it’s a private, after-the-fact guilt that doesn’t influence behavior or dissuade bingeing.

      Still noodling with the concept, as you can probably tell 🙂

  2. Christine Frost says:

    I believe that guilt is our conscience wrestling with our integrity. By exploring guilt we become more mindful of our practices. We can get to the bottom of why we are feeling bad instead of brushing it off and living a “no regrets” lifestyle. Taking all emotions seriously and giving them their day in court is an important path to emotional well being. Since guilt is so hard to define and discuss, it seems to be one of those emotions that comes from the heart or the gut. Meaning that it’s very hard to work through and be processed by the mind. Ultimately, it reveals our vulnerabilities… so we definitely want to know what those are. This is a beautiful and natural part of being human and embracing our unique and diverse spectrum of emotions.

    1. Howard says:

      Love it, Christine! Thanks for that definition of guilt. I’m finding the New Age refusal to acknowledge guilt as potentially healthy and useful a real barrier to transformation.

  3. Christine Frost says:

    Thanks Howard. Brene Brown has written a great book about wrestling with guilt, shame, and vulnerability called “Rising Strong” I just finished it so these things have been on my mind lately as well. Keep up the great work!

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