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Overcoming Guilt and Shame with Michael Edelstein: PYP 203

Michael Edelstein, PhD, returns to the podcast to help me wrap my mind around two of my most faithful mind-companions, guilt and shame. Dr. Edelstein is a clinical psychologist, and author of the most excellent self-help book, Three Minute Therapy.

He's also a student of the great Dr. Albert Ellis, founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), one of the foundational contributions to cognitive behavior therapy (CBT).

I reached out to Dr. Edelstein after reading Peter Breggin, MD's book, Guilt, Shame, and Anxiety: Understanding and Overcoming Negative Emotions. While I loved the book, I couldn't totally shake my belief that guilt and shame have played a useful role in my own life.

As in, without guilt I would do shitty things to other people. And without shame, I would be a total slacker who wasted his entire life binge-watching Amazon Prime shows. (Sneaky Pete is fun, but Patriot is just stunning. Just saying…)

In our conversation, Dr Edelstein and I covered:

  • how human demands – on ourselves and others – block effective action
  • we don't “get” shame, guilt, and anxiety – we create them
  • we have the power to uncreate negative emotions
  • dealing effectively with social and political crises
  • guilt and shame arise from turning preferences into demands on ourselves
  • the evolutionary origins of anxiety
  • the fictional basis of 12-step programs (powerlessness)
  • “it doesn't matter if alcoholism is a disease or not; the treatment is the same”
  • and much more…

Enjoy, add your voice to the conversation via the comment box below, and please share – that's how we spread our message and spread our roots.


Dr Edelstein's practice site

Three Minute Therapy – on amazon

Guilt, Shame, and Anxiety: Understanding and Overcoming Negative Emotions – by Peter Breggin, MD


Read the full transcript here

A short introduction: my guest, Michael Edelstein, is a psychologist; he's a returning guest and he is the author of the most excellent self-help book, Three Minute Therapy.  And I reached out to Michael after listening to a lecture and reading a book by Dr. Peter Breggin, called Guilt, Shame and Anxiety: Understanding and Overcoming Negative Emotions, in which Dr. Breggin bascally argued that guilt, shame and anxiety are competely useless emotions that have no place in the world of the adult mind.  

And I was like, 'Yeah, anxiety, that doesn't seem very helpful, but guilt and shame, aren't they useful? Don't they have an evolutionary basis to keep us on the straight and narrow, to keep us doing social things rather than anti-social things? Don't guilt and shame stop me from being an asshole?"  

And so I floated this to Dr. Edelstein, and he was like, “No, I agree with Dr. Breggin. Guilt and shame are completely useless and counterproductive, and there's much better ways of feeling in the world and feeling with your own shortcomings.” So I'm like, OK, let's talk about it. And so we did!  And so without further ado:

HOWARD:  Dr. Michael Edelstein, welcome back to the Plant Yourself Podcast.  

DR EDELSTEIN:  Thanks, Howard. Thanks for inviting me again. It was a pleasure the first time; I was looking forward to this.  

HOWARD:  Well, I have to say that your episode is one of those that both I, and my students and clients refer to again and again, in terms of nuts and bolts -- helping people to make big changes in their habits and their lifestyles -- because it kind of all starts with mindset. So I'm very excited to have you back.

DR. EDELSTEIN: Great, thanks for saying that, it's a pleasure. I'm pleased to be able to help you. 

HOWARD: Cool.  So before we get into today's topic, maybe we can recap the fundamentals. What I remember, what I sort of carry with me, is the word "demands" and that almost everything that makes us unhappy or unfulfilled in our life, is basically some form of mistaking a preference for a demand.  First of all, am I overstating, or is that basically it?  

DR. EDELSTEIN:  Well, you got the core of it, but it is somewhat of an overstatement, because the way I view it is, there are appropriate negative emotions, so if we're unhappy, that doesn't necessarily mean we have demands. But if we have inappropriate and disturbed emotions, that DOES come from demands, by which we mean absolutistic thinking -- musts, shoulds, supposed to's, have to's -- the demands we put on ourselves, on others, on situations. 

But barring that, we can still have strong preference. So if I have a strong preference against war, and I look in the Middle East and I see wars going on, it makes sense to be unhappy, because my preference is blocked. But it doesn't make sense to become depressed, miserable, suicidal, homicidal just because my preference is blocked. And the only real reason I would have these disturbed emotions is because I do a very human thing, which is to escalate our preferences into demands -- "Because I strongly prefer peace, therefore there MUST be peace and there SHOULDN'T be any war in the world, and people HAVE TO treat each other better. This is AWFUL, TERRIBLE and HORRIBLE. I can't stand it, and I'm going to be miserable forever." 

So that's how the appropriate negative emotion, becomes an inappropriate, disturbed emotion. That's a long way of saying that some unhappiness comes from an adverse situation, but other kinds -- the disturbed kinds of unhappiness -- comes from our irrational thinking. 

HOWARD: Beautiful. Thanks for that clarification. How do we know -- what are the symptoms, and what are the indicators -- that we've escalated to a demand and are not just dealing with a very strong preference?

DR. EDELSTEIN: That's a great question, and the answer is, there are cognitive, emotive and behavioral [components] of disturbed thinking, and the cognitive ones, we've already touched on -- thinking in terms of demands -- the musts and shoulds, and the global evaluations. So, when you start with a demand such as "Because I prefer peace, there must be peace everywhere in the world", then that usually leads to global evaluations such as Life is [categorically] awful, I'll NEVER be happy, EVERYONE'S at war. 

So that's one aspect of disturbed thinking and disturbed emotions. And there are three main, core demands that people disturb themselves with.  The first is a demand on oneself -- for example, "Because I prefer to do well and get approval, therefore I absolutely must. I have to." And following that is the global evaluation, for example, "Because I've failed, I'm a total failure as a person. I'm no good as a person." That leads to anxiety, depression and guilt. 

The second type of core demand is not a demand on oneself, but rather it is a demand on others, and that takes the form of, "Because I prefer you to treat me fairly, considerately, respectfully, lovingly, reciprocally, therefore you absolutely must treat me well, and if you don't do so, YOU'RE no good as a person, that's the global evaluation that comes from that. YOU deserve to roast in hell, and I just appointed myself your roaster." So there's another global evaluation that leads to anger, resentment and hostility. 

And the third area is not a demand on oneself or others, but it's a demand on the impersonal conditions of one's life, and that takes the form of, "Life must be fair, easy, hassle-free, orderly", and if it's not then the global evaluation, "LIFE is horrible, I can't stand it", and that leads to procrastination and addictions. 

So if you know what you're feeling or how you're acting is self-defeating, then you have a good idea of what the must is -- if it's anxiety, then it's probably the first must. If it's anger, probably the second must. If you're addicted or procrastinating, it's probably the third must. 

And by the way, last night I gave a talk to a vegan group and we were talking about the third must -- people addicted to meat, dairy, candy, things like that -- they had the third must: "Because I strongly prefer to satisfy my cravings for Belgian chocolate, therefore I absolutely MUST have some and I'll be miserable forever if I don't." 

So that's one hallmark of having a disturbance -- you have global evaluations, and you have must's and should's. 

There are some emotional hallmarks of disturbed thinking, and that's these emotions that I mentioned -- anxiety, depression, anger jealousy, hurts, resentments, guilt, shame, embarrassment. And we could go on and on, because humans are very good at disturbing themselves, so there are many kinds of disturbed emotions that people have. So if you have one those emotions -- or if you are procrastinating or acting addictively -- then it's likely that you have disturbed thinking and emotions.

Also, obsessing, dwelling and ruminating, tend to accompany disturbed emotions, so if you're thinking of a problem again and again and again -- obsessing on it in a non-productive way -- not in a solution-oriented way -- then it's likely you have disturbed emotions and irrational thinking. 

And then, there are behavioral aspects of this -- like addictions. If you're addicted to alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, love, shopping, coffee, the internet, and one of the most popular addictions these days, an addiction to Facebook -- I've had a number of clients addicted to Facebook and trying to stop that -- those are some behavioral aspects of disturbance. 

HOWARD:  Got it. So, I wanted to talk to you specifically about guilt, shame and anxiety, after reading Peter Breggin's book on that topic. It occurs to me when you're talking about things like peace in the Middle East and imposing demands, that one of the problems with disordered thinking is that it's hiding itself in righteousness, in a desire for things to be different, to make a positive impact on the world.  And you know, I know a lot of people right now in the world, in the United States, who are in various states of distress over our current political state. And their inner turmoil, their demands that things be otherwise, seem to me to be blocking their taking effective action. How do you see the disordered thinking, as it intersects with an extreme political situation?

DR. EDELSTEIN: Well, you're exactly right. When you have demands, righteousness, anger and those kinds of things, it does tend to block effective action. Many years ago, I was living in an apartment building in Brooklyn and the furnace -- you know, Brooklyn gets real cold in the winter -- that's one of the reasons I moved to California -- and the furnace would break down a lot in the winter, and people would freeze -- not literally -- but they would be freezing in their apartments, we all were -- and I thought I'd try to take some effective action, and go around and collect signatures protesting this and handing it to the superintendent. 

And so I started knocking on doors, and a lot of people were very, very angry about this.  They did nothing about it, but they were very, very angry, and I think that consumed some of them and got them nowhere.  Harry Emerson Fosdick, the author, said, "Anger is like burning down your house to get rid of a rat."  And I think that's a nice metaphor for it.  

Now on the other side, there was Gandhi -- there was a great movie called Gandhi starring Ben Kingsley, about Gandhi's life -- and there was one scene that took place in South Africa, and he was protesting the requirement for colored people to have these papers and police stopped them at any time on the street and demand their papers. And he was protesting that, and he called for a demonstration in the village square in the village he was in.  And he said, 'Bring your papers, I'm going to burn them.' 

And people did that, and this got out, and the police showed up on the scene, and Gandhi was burning these papers, and police came over and they told him to stop and he just kept calmly throwing these papers into the fire. And they threatened him, and he didn't stop, and then they just started beating him.  And as he was falling to the ground, he continued feebly to put the papers in the fire -- he didn't seem angry, he seemed very resolute and passionate about it. 

And the next day, some of the newspapers had headlines, "Gandhi Beaten to a Pulp By Police". And this radicalized a lot of people and got them on Gandhi's side.  So, this was very effective political action.  If he was angry, if he fought the police, then the headlines might have read, "Gandhi Protesters Riot" or something like that. So, that's a very stark example of how passionate, determination, and commitment will get you further than anger, resentment, self-righteousness, and those kinds of things.  

HOWARD:  So what do you tell people when -- I don't know if you have patients/clients right now who are affected by the political situation, but for me -- it's very easy to get angry. It's very easy for me to get mean and snarky and to enjoy jibes at hateful things that people are sharing on Facebook -- sort of schadenfreude or ridicule of the other side.  When someone is that worked up and angry and upset, and I can feel my own demands rising up, what do I  do with it?  It's easy to say, "Be like Gandhi", but what's the process by which I can get there?

DR. EDELSTEIN: That's a key question, Howard, and the answer is that the first step is, "Do you want to get over your anger?" Because if you don't want to get over it, if you think it's doing you good -- which I would dispute -- but if you think it's acting to help you achieve your goals, then you probably don't want to get over it, and you're not going to take the following steps.  But if you want to get over it, the first step is to ask yourself, "What's my demand?  What's my must?  What am I telling myself that's creating my anger?"

And, normally it's something like "Things should be different", or "These politicians -- Trump or whoever they're specifically angry at -- shouldn't be the way they are.  They should think the way I think, not the way they think. They shouldn't harm people."  They have all sorts of godlike demands that things have to be their way, so the first step, is to identify that demand and you write it -- the most effective way to do it, is to write it down.  And then write down a question, to question that demand.  

Let's suppose the demand is, "Trump should be acting the way I want, not the way he wants." So then you question it:  "What the evidence that Trump has to act the way I want, not the way he wants?" That's the question.  And then you look. It's not that you prefer it.  Of course, you'd prefer that he see things your way.  And it's not that there aren't disadvantages.  Of course there are disadvantages to what he does, to what he's doing, according to your goals and your values. But why MUST he act according to your values and your goals?  That's the question.  

And if you think about it, there are no musts, there are no shoulds, there's never any evidence for demands. There's only one situation in which there would be evidence, and that is, if you were elected ruler of the Universe, then Trump and everyone else, would have to do things the way you want them to do. But probably, you're not going to be elected this week.  Maybe next week but not this week.  

So, in facing the fact that you don't run the Universe, and these are things that you could write down in answer to the question, "What's the evidence that Trump must do things my way? Or that Trump must not harm people or act stupidly?"  And you would write down answers.  There's no evidence that Trump absolutely has to do things the way I want him to do them.  I don't run the Universe, I don't control others -- the President or anyone else.  He's a free agent with free will.  He'll do what he wants to do, not what I think he should do."  

You could also think to yourself, "I could take concerted action to file a petition for impeachment or other things, but getting angry doesn't help and just eats me up inside.  Since he's a very imperfect human, I can expect him to act very imperfectly.  It's not his [insufferable?] behavior that causes my anger, but rather, it's my unrealistic thinking and demands about it, and I can change my thinking. I can learn to unconditionally accept poor behavior in others -- large or small -- without eating myself up about it."  

You can think to yourself, "Although I'll never like this behavior, I can still have a happy life -- even when others act badly -- although I'd be much happier if they changed their ways."  So, those are some answers to the question you could write down.  And don't do it just once, but do it again, again, again and again.  Repetition is the royal road to learning. The more you practice this, the better you get at it.  

And in my book, Three Minute Therapy, in every chapter -- there are 14 chapters -- I have examples of these exercises -- A, B, C, D, E, F -- where A is the activating event, B is the belief, C is the consequence (your anger), D is the question, "What is the evidence?", E is the effective new thinking (some of these answers that I mentioned) and F is the new feeling which would be great concern, great determination to do something about this -- not ripping myself up with anger, resentment, hostility.  

I call that a three minute exercise because once you master it, it just takes a few minutes, but if you practice that every day -- writing out your musts, questioning them, contradicting them, again and again and again. As long as you what you write is meaningful and makes sense to you, then your perspectives will change.  Because that's how humans work -- they look for evidence, the way we tried to help people get onto a vegan track, is by showing them evidence that a plant-rich diet is healthier than a plant-poor diet, and we have compiled many, many studies indicating this. And then when people read that and they see the evidence for a different way of thinking and acting, then they change their beliefs and change their behaviors. 

And it's the same with you as an individual -- you can change your beliefs and behaviors by changing your thinking through showing yourself the evidence against your musts and shoulds, again and again and again. And keeping at it.

HOWARD: And so, from your perspective, there's a clear benefit to the individual for not eating themself up with anger. But you see that there's also a benefit to the movement that they espouse and want to be part of. It seems like if someone is not eating themself up, if they are not carrying around these musts and shoulds and demands, that they're going to be much more effective and efficient in their actions with a lot less collateral damage and maybe even less blowback from the other side they're trying to influence. 

DR. EDELSTEIN: Yes, that's exactly right, Howard. And not only from the other sde, but from their own side. And I've worked with people in different political movements, and I'm in a political movement myself, and I've given talks called "How to Avoid Feuding and Dissension in Your Political Movement".  Because people have musts and shoulds about their colleagues. 

Different people have different activist strategies for example, and if you have a must or a should, like, "They should see it my way, and see that the political action I recommend is the right way." And that would cause feuding and dissension and burnout.  That leads to a less effective movement. Not only can there be [demands] against your opponents, but even the demands against your colleagues can cause anger and lead to poor results.

HOWARD: Beautiful, beautiful.  So for those of us who see ourselves as part of a resistance, an alternative, to where we think the country's going, Three Minute Therapy is actually a really good, actionable guidebook. We don't need necessarily a list of a thousand things to do if we're doing them all in sort of slothy, angry ways.  This is sort of our daily mental calisthenics, so that whatever way we want to participate in social discourse, we can do it cleanly and effectively as possible. 

DR EDELSTEIN: Yes, and I like your analogy to calisthenics. I use a different one in my book -- an analogy to brushing your teeth. If you don't want to have any cavities; if you don't want to have bad breath, you brush your teeth every day. It's a daily ritual because you know if you stop, the plaque and bacteria will slowly start creeping back in.  So it's the same with uprooting your demands. You do that on a regular basis -- daily, or every other day, or on some kind of regular basis -- and you keep on doing it. 

As you're saying, it's a simple process, just questioning your musts and shoulds and contradicting them. And it -- although it's a simple process -- it has profound ramifications for many parts of your life. 

HOWARD: So now I'd love to shift into my own inquiries into guilt and shame and anxieties. As I said, I got to thinking about this from reading Peter Breggin's book, Guilt, Shame and Anxiety. And he refers to all of these as negative legacy emotions and stated categorically that they had no place in the emotional life of the mature adult human. 

And that kind of threw me, because I've always assumed that guilt and shame have useful evolutionary roots, and that if someone is doing something bad, and they feel guilt or shame for it, that's kind of a useful control -- as opposed to needing someone else to be looking at them all the time. So, it kind of shook me to think that specifically shame and guilt -- feelings we get when we don't live up to something, like that's basically how I would define it to myself. Like, we wouldn't want those, because I would be afraid that without those, we would not behave well.  So, I'll throw that to you, and would love to hear your thoughts. 

DR. EDELSTEIN: Yeah, well, I have a number of things to add a comment on. One is, the basic error, "feelings we get" -- we don't just "get" feelings -- they don't come from situations; they don't arise out of the blue. But it's feelings we create ourselves -- so guilt, shame, anxiety, are feelings we create ourselves, and that's a powerful notion, because if we create these feelings and if they're negative legacy emotions, which I'll try to make the case for also, along with Peter, then you have the power to change that. So if you create these feelings, you can uncreate them. 

And in terms of it being a useful control, Howard, as I was saying, guilt, shame, anxiety and all these other disturbed emotions, arise from preferences.  Let's say you have a strong preference.  For example, let's suppose you're a vegan, and you eat some meat, and you feel guilty about it. The reason you feel guilty about it is because first, you have a strong preference to eat healthfully.  And then you feel concerned, disappointed, uncomfortable, and frustrated, about having not complied with your goal to eat healthfully. So you have those appropriate negative emotions. And negative emotions -- appropriate negative emotions can be rather strong, if you have a strong preference. 

But then, when you escalate that: Because it would've been preferable not to eat the meat, therefore I absolutely must not eat meat, I should not eat meat, and I'm a worthless failure because I did -- THEN you create guilt.  So without the musts, without the self-blaming and the self-condemnation and those global evaluations, you would still have very strong concern and passion to do the right thing, rather than guilt. 

So you [can choose to] have appropriate negative emotions, rather than those inappropriate ones that don't help. And we've been outlining how they don't help, and I'm sure, as a vegan yourself and author, I'm sure you've met many people who've switched from meat-eating to a plant-rich diet, who've done that without guilt, shame and anxiety. They've done it because they were determined to live a healthy life, and determined to eat healthful foods. 

And then in terms of the evolutionary purpose, it could be that at some point, that guilt had evolutionary adaptive benefits. And one could be that a million years ago when humans' brains were being formed, their brains didn't have the specificity to distinguish instances of right behavior from overgeneralizations. So guilt comes from an overgeneralization: Because I'd prefer to do well in situation because there are advantages to doing well and disadvantages if I don't, Therefore I absolutely must. 

So if they weren't able to differentiate between a preference and a must, and the "must" kept them alive because at that time that was somewhat functional, then it could've developed that way. 

HOWARD: Can you give an example of that, because I'm trying to wrap my head around it. I'm not quite following. 

DR. EDELSTEIN: OK, thanks for asking. One example would be, let's suppose a million years ago, there was a rustling in the trees, and the human had an overgeneralization, "I know it's a sabertooth tiger about to pounce, so I'd better get out of here" and let's say it wasn't a sabertooth tiger -- it was just the wind.  Well, it doesn't matter -- the human survived. 

Let's suppose you were more of a modern thinker, and you heard a rustling in the trees, and you thought, "Is it a sabertooth tiger? Is it the wind? Let me look around and see what exactly is going on". Well, then it might be too late. 

So if you have a false positive, you're going to survive.  But if you have a false negative, you won't.  You won't survive to proliferate your genes. So that's one example. 

HOWARD: How does that work in terms of guilt or shame or anxiety?  How would feeling one of those emotions, even if they were inappropriate most of the time, still lead to maybe false positives and survival?

DR. EDELSTEIN: Well, that was an example of anxiety, because if you have a must, then that would tend to make you anxious. With guilt, if you have guilt, and you don't have the option because of your undeveloped brain -- if you don't have the option of feeling "great concern", which is a more subtle differentiated emotion, then you might not act in proper ways, but these days we can differentiate, and we can -- of course the disadvantage of guilt and other disturbing emotions, which of course we have been discussing, you're much more effective with great concern, great determination, great passion about doing better -- rather than guilt, which also leads to self-blame, self-condemnation, and also thinking, "I'm a total failure, I can't do any better, so I might as well indulge myself with the unhealthy food."

HOWARD: So guilt and shame in that case are over-the-top, inappropriate emotions -- are essentially disempowering us. 

DR. EDELSTEIN: Yes! That's a very good way to describe it. They're disempowering, as opposed to preferences and determination, which are empowering. 

HOWARD: So if I'm a vegan, and you talked about the healthy way to frame this, is to think about the healthy effect on your body -- I know a lot of vegans who really couldn't care less about their own health.  They would tell you in a second, that they're doing it entirely for the animals. And so someone like that maybe gets a little bit drunk and has some chicken wings and then goes home -- they are likely to feel a lot of guilt -- based on the strength of their preferences and their sense that any human consumption of animal foods is categorically wrong and awful and evil. 

DR EDELSTEIN: I disagree that they're going to feel guilt based on their preference -- they're going to feel guilt based on their demand. Their preference wouldn't lead them to feel guilty or put themselves down, because preferences are NOT absolute.  Preferences are framed in reality. They look at the advantages and disadvantages, and if they were thinking rationally, and we can understand why they may not be, because they're humans and humans often don't think rationally.  

But if someone like this were thinking rationally the next morning, they would say, "I strongly prefer not to have the chicken wings, it was a big mistake. What could I do in the future to avoid that?" And then they could come up with some strategies, tools, techniques, to avoid chicken wings in the future.  

I work with people who have addictions, and I teach them all kinds of techniques they can use to avoid acting addictively. So the first thing for them to see is, their guilt is based on their musts, irrational, illogical, un-empirical thinking -- not on their strong preference -- and therefore the issue is, Uproot Your Must and Act on Your Strong Preference. 

HOWARD: So that suddenly brings up in my mind, the dynamic that I often see, and I don't want to generalize -- but. I often see in vegan advocacy, which is pretty overtly an attempt to make other people feel guilty in their own meat-eating -- from the pictures, to the movies, to the statistics. It feels like very often a desire to induce guilt and shame in people who aren't yet as "enlightened" as we are. That's a flip side. If this strategy IS driven by guilt or shame, I wonder whether you feel it's destined to backfire. 

DR. EDELSTEIN: Well, there's Forks Over Knives, which is a good movie along these lines, and it seems to educate people. And we don't know what's in the minds of the producers of Forks Over Knives, whether their goal was to make people feel guilty, or just educate the people. Now, I agree with you, certainly SOME people want others to feel guilty. some may believe that's an effective motivator, and some may feel they deserve to be punished because "they're eating unhealthfully, and I'm going to punish them by making them feel guilty" so that could be in their minds. 

But I think the beneficial aspects of these movies, is the educational part, to show people that the evidence heavily falls on the weight of a vegan-rich diet for health. So, that's why I think these pictures, movies, statistics, books ARE persuasive, is that people get educated. I've converted a number of people to veganism, just by giving them a book or acting as a role model, and then they get educated. I didn't have a sense that they felt guilty about it. 

HOWARD: Right. I have to say that for the record, I consider Forks Over Knives to be at the far extreme non-judgmental end in the movement. Really, the focus was on scientific discovery and how it played out in people's lives. And I think that's one of the reasons that when you go to a lot of vegan festivals and health festivals, and you ask people, "How did you first hear about this?" About 90% of their hands go up when you ask, "Who saw Forks Over Knives and that caused you to first change?" I think that's one of the qualities, an overlooked quality of that type of advocacy, is that it does not come across as judgmental. 

DR. EDELSTEIN:  Now theres another movie which I thought was very good, which I thought was at the other end of the continuum.  It's largely emotional, I thought, and it's called Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead.  Have you seen that one, Howard? (HOWARD: Yep, Joe Cross. I'm familiar with that one.) And it's largely an inspirational movie, and then it shows him going around to different groups, explaining his thing about juicing things and avoiding animal products. And he makes a lot of converts. And again, I don't see guilt playing a large part in that. I see a lot of enthusiastic people who want to be more healthy and want to lose a lot of weight like he did. And so I don't know how much guilt plays a role in this. 

Also, when someone sees that they're acting poorly, self-defeatingly and they see a better way -- if they DO make themselves guilty or ashamed, or anxious -- then this is a disturbance, and I don't think this is anything we want to reinforce. So I wouldn't hold up them as a role model for how to think, or how to get people to change their behavior.  

HOWARD: I guess one of the obstacles, is that if you're going to give up your guilt and your shame, you could feel defenseless. Because you feel like, without those, I would simply not be a good person. Is that a form of disordered thinking, that when you work with people, and you explain to them that guilt and shame are optional and unhelpful, do you ever have people who cling to it as a kind of moral compass, without which they would be lost?

DR. EDELSTEIN:  Not very much, but I'm not representative of the average [therapist], because people come to me with their guilt and shame because they want to get over it.  If they thought it was great, they wouldn't come to my office.

HOWARD: Good point. 

DR. EDELSTEIN: Yeah, and secondly, I've been doing this for 40 years, showing people how their guilt, shame and anxiety are doing them in, and I have very good arguments against it, so I'm very good at it. So that's another reason why I'd be more effective than the average person.  

As far as someone feeling defenseless, well, I think it's the opposite. When they get over their guilt and shame, not by squelching it -- that's the wrong way to get over it -- "I won't allow myself to feel guilt and shame". But changing and uprooting the fundamental causes, changing their thinking, reinforcing their strong preferences, and abolishing their demands, that wouldn't make them defenseless at all because they have very strong weapons against the problems in their lives and ways to work on it. 

Also, in terms of the idea of "I would not be a good person", that's another major error that people make, that I explain to my clients, and have written on in my book Three Minute Therapy. I have a chapter on, and give talks on, it's the self-esteem trap. And that comes from the global evaluation from the first demand, "I must do well and get approval or else I'm no good". 

So these people who would not feel good if they didn't feel guilty, are saying. "A -- I must feel guilty to be a good person". But [the idea of] a good person is another one of those overgeneralizations -- it comes from rating your total self, based on the rating of your behavior. So it makes sense to rate your behavior, "I did poorly last night when I ate the chicken wings. How could I do better in the future?" But it makes no sense to say, "Because I did poorly last night eating the chicken wings, therefore I'm a totally bad person, I'm no good, I'm a failure" -- that's an overgeneralization, there's no evidence that you turned into a failure because you fail at some things. If that was the case, we'd all be walking-around failures, because we all fail at things a lot. 

So I help them abolish the idea of being a good person or a bad person. Whether you do well or poorly or people like you or dislike you, you're still the same imperfect human, who acts imperfectly, who's going to do well or poorly at times, who's going to be liked or disliked at times, and if you come to that realization, that's called Unconditional Self-Acceptance. U. S. A. Is the acronym -- Unconditional Self-Acceptance. Accepting yourself unconditionally as the fallible human you are, whether you eat chicken wings or not, and the issue is, how can you do better, not how you can be a better person, or rate your personhood, your being, your essence as good. 

HOWARD: That's really powerful. What comes to me is this word Power -- that when you feel powerful, you don't feel like you need guilt or shame to keep yourself in line. And I think we live in a culture in which we get the message that we're not powerful, that if you're addicted, you have no control over the food, you have to go to a separate tent at the reunion, you can't take a drop of the liquid, that it's biochemical, physiological, that it's a disease. And of course, when something's a disease, it's no longer your responsibility. What are your thoughts on the addiction model that's become mainstream?  Is that sort of getting in the way of our manifesting free will?

DR. EDELSTEIN: Well, I think it's certainly getting in the way of getting over an addiction, and what you're describing there Howard basically comes from the 12-step model, which was started in the 1930s, and has been very popular ever since. And they have these twelves steps and the first one is, "I admit I am powerless over alcohol", or "I am powerless over my addiction.” And that's powerlessness, rather than powerfulness. 

And that's an obvious fiction, that you're powerless over your addiction, because if you were powerless over the alcohol or the chicken wings, that means that it knocked you down, poured itself down your throat and forced you to drink it. Then you could say you're powerless. Or maybe someone with a gun says, "Drink the alcohol or I'll shoot" -- then maybe you could say you are powerless. But that's not the case. The case is, you're powerful. You're the one who decided to eat the chicken wings, or You're the one who decided to drink the alcohol. So you have the power to choose to do it. So you have the power to choose not to do it. 

And I've worked with people who have gone to AA, and they've said, I used that as an excuse to drink, I'm powerless over the alcohol, and I need a higher power to help me. So of course I'll drink. 

Also, in terms of the disease model, the evidence is that most of our personality traits, whether they're disturbed traits or healthy traits, have a large genetic influence in general -- about 50% of the influence in our personality comes from our genetic predispositions. But influences are not causes, and you can work against your genetic predispositions -- we do so all the time. So it's not a disease in the conventional sense of defining disease. You can't get over a disease by changing your thinking, and normally you don't have fever and achiness when you're addicted to chicken wings, so it's not a disease of that type. But it is a genetically related problem. But genetics doesn't determine your behavior, just influence it. So you can change it. 

Another way of looking at this, if you're not going to buy into my interactionist model of genetics, environment and your own thinking, is, If it is a disease, the solution is Stop Drinking, or Stop Eating the Chicken Wings. And if it's not a disease, the solution is Stop Drinking, or Stop Eating the Chicken Wings. So the solution is the same in either case. So if you want to get over an addiction, whether it's a disease or not, is sort of an interesting intellectual or scientific discussion, but it's not terribly relevant to improving your behavior. 

HOWARD: That's very elegant.  So it occurs to me that maybe my hangup about what Peter Breggin's book, was kind of linguistic. Because I was being very, very broad and vague and blunt, in my use of the words guilt and shame. And that there are appropriate negative emotions that I was just lumping together. 

DR EDELSTEIN:  Yes, I think thats a very good diagnosis of what was going on in your thinking, and what goes on in most people's thinking -- they lump together strong concern and determination, with anxiety, depression and anger. And sometimes they think, "Well, concern, determination, sorrow, regret, those are weaker emotions, and anger, that's a strong emotion, or depression, that's a strong emotion.” But preferences can be very strong and very passionate and lead to strong emotions. 

For example, I gave the example of Gandhi and his passion. Another clear example is, a loved one dies, and you mourn, you grieve, you cry at the loss, and it doesn't mean you're disturbed or suicidal or depressed -- you might be, but that would be a mistake -- but you might just have a very strong, very passionate preference not to lose your loved one. And rightly conclude that it's very sad, highly disadvantageous that it happened, and it leads to these strong, very appropriate negative emotions. 

HOWARD:  Yeah, there's something about the phrase Highly Disadvantagous, that feels like maybe a mismatch with the emotion. I hear it, but it almost feels like I'd rather think of myself as someone who is overwhelmed with grief and maybe rage at the Universe, than to sort of be like an accountant and be like, "Well, that was a highly disadvantageous occurrence."  You know what I mean?

DR. EDELSTEIN:  I know what you mean, but if you define something as highly disadvantageous, very bad, very sad, regretful, disappointing and frustrating -- that's what leads to emotions. Emotions come from evaluations. And deciding that something's disadvantageous implies, you don't want disadvantages, so your evaluation is, This is bad, and that leads to emotions. 

So it may seem on the surface that it's not emotional, it's just scientific or statistical, but it's these evaluations that lead to emotions, and it's really much more than facts, but it's these values we attach to facts. And by the way, that reminds me of another myth that people have about stoicism, that the common understanding of stoicism is that your not emotional -- bad things happen, and you have no emotions. 

But that's a misunderstanding of stoicism. Stoics were emotional, and they had strong emotions. In fact, there's a book called A Guide to the Good Life: The Art of Stoic Joy. And what the author shows is that if you're stoic, which means largely practicing acceptance, unconditional acceptance of yourself and the Universe, then you can have great joy, because you don't dampen it with depression, anxiety, guilt and shame. So what you're expressing is a common misunderstanding, and it's good to re-evaluate that. 

HOWARD: Is it useful to define guilt versus shame?  Because anxiety, I know, to me feels very different. It feels like a very clearly different experience. But I get confused about guilt and shame. Is it worth it, to talk about how they're different, or does the ABCDEF model take care or it, and it would just be intellectual wheel-spinning to provide definitions? 

DR. EDELSTEIN: It's worth it if you're interested in the distinction, but in terms of getting over it, it's not that important. The way I look at it is, guilt is wrong-doing in your own eyes -- I ate the chicken wings, I did wrong, I'm a bad person.  That's guilt.  Shame is acting poorly in other people's eyes, and then using that against yourself -- I ate the chicken wings, and all these vegans knew about it, they're disapproving of me, that's shameful, and I must not be disapproved of, I'm a bad person. So that's one way you can look at the distinction. 

HOWARD: OK. So yeah, it sounds like in either case, we don't have to overcomplicate it. The solution is to find the demand -- the should, the must -- and then argue with it. 

DR. EDELSTEIN:  Exactly -- debate it and contradict it.  Seeing that it's false. And if you decide there's evidence for your must and should, your thinking is off, because all demands are fictions -- they lead to emotional disturbance and behavioral disturbance. They don't do you any good. They're fictions. 

Now you could say there's conditional musts, which kind of complicates the issue. You could say, "In order to get to the airport on time to catch my flight, I must leave a half hour earlier." So that's a conditional must. It's a must of prediction: "If / Then". If I want X, then I must do Y. 

But you could also say, IF I want X, then it's strongly preferable that I do Y. So I talk about psychopathological musts and shoulds. And you know whether it's one or the other, because if you feel anxious about getting to the airport on time, then you have a psychopathological must or should -- an absolutistic one that's leading to global evaluations. But if you're just determined, then I would translate that into saying, "I would strongly prefer to get to the airport on time, but if I'm late, I'm late." 

And by the way, there's no reason in an absolutistic sense without the emotional disturbance why you must get to the airport on time to get your plane, because sometimes you get to the airport and the plane's delayed. And you get it anyway. So it's not an absolute, and there are always options. 

HOWARD: And I've missed planes in the past, and I'm still here talking to you, so obviously the world didn't end. 

DR. EDELSTEIN: Excellent point! 

HOWARD: Although I thought it was at the time!

DR EDELSTEIN: That's right!  Because you told yourself it was [world was ending], but you could change your thinking.

HOWARD: Beautiful.  Well, I see we're almost to the top of the hour. I know you have a very busy schedule, so I want to thank you again -- partly for the new stuff, and partly because as you say, Repetition is the royal road to learning. Thanks for reminding me again, of the basis of the way you look at the world and the way you empower people to move through it -- gracefully, and happily, and with as much joy and as little unnecessary suffering as possible.

DR. EDELSTEIN: Well, thank you so much, Howard, it's delightful speaking with you. You ask essential, key questions and interesting ones, and in parting, I'd just like to say, as I've mentioned, I have a book, you can read all the details of my approach, it's called Three Minute Therapy. And I have a website, and I have many YouTubes discussing this topic and others. And I base everything I've discussed here, on the work of Albert Ellis, who was a psychology genius of the twentieth century. And he's written over eighty books, and also has YouTubes. So he's another great source for these ideas. 

HOWARD: So if people -- absolutely, get the book -- anyone who's listening to this who -- if you've ever had a negative thought in your life that's distressed you, Three Minute Therapy is the best, quickest, most clearly written guidebook for dealing with and getting rid of it. I recommend it unconditionally. And if people want to work with you one-on-one, you do Skype, right? 

DR. EDELSTEIN: I do phone, Skype, and in-person sessions -- I'm in the San Francisco Bay area, but I have many Skype clients even in other countries, so that's always a possibility. 

HOWARD: And they can find you through that same website, 

DR. EDELSTEIN: Yes. And my phone number and email address is on there, so if you have any questions, please feel free to email me or call me, I'd be happy to answer questions, I love discussing this, and I love helping people with it.

HOWARD: OK, Dr. Michael Edelstein -- Thank you so much once again for being on the Plant Yourself Podcast, and for being a personal guide and mentor of mine. 

DR. EDELSTEIN: Oh, thank you, Howard.  

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4 comments on “Overcoming Guilt and Shame with Michael Edelstein: PYP 203

  1. I would love to offer a few podcasts’ worth of transcribing. I would love to help out.

    1. Howard says:

      Awesome, Marjorie! I’m so grateful for the offer!

  2. Tracie R. says:

    I have listened to this twice now and LOVE it. I have already started examining my preferences vs. demands and look forward to getting deeper into this once I read his book. Thanks!

    1. Howard says:

      Awesome! Michael is one of the sane-making voices in my head 🙂

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