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Since a passing comment on twitter turned into an ongoing discussion I thought I’d move it over here where I could at least hash our some of my thoughts on the subject. The other day Neil Strauss proposed a challenge that consisted of going 30-days without any guilt-motivated behavior. He speculated this would include guilt from “friends, family, religion, society, etc” which is a pretty wide playing field for something that isn’t immediately clear as to what might be involved. He notes that guilt and ethics are not the same thing, and that self-induced guilt is certainly included and usually where it all begins. He also offered up a few examples that would be considered guilt-motivated behavior:

Hanging out with someone solely because you feel bad for having blown them off for months.

Returning a call or email you don’t want to, or doing a favor for someone because you feel like you “owe them.”

I thought this was kind of interesting and tried to think of what might constitute guilt-motivated behavior (or GMB for the rest of this post) in my own day to day. It’s not quite as easy to isolate as I thought it might be so I proposed the question on twitter asking if others could recognize things which might be included. Honestly I didn’t expect an answer but @bruin’s reply sparked the conversation. He suggested that if you weren’t acting out of guilt, the only other option was to be a “selfish asshat.” Needless to say I tend to disagree with that assertion.

Actually I think finding things that aren’t done because of guilt or selfishness is really easy, much easier then say, the original question of finding things done out of guilt. I think there are countless motives for doing things other than those two options. While visiting a friends house the other day I didn’t steal their valuables and set the place on fire, not because I was selfish, not because I wanted to but was afraid of what people might think of me or the consequences I might face, but because I think that’s kind of a dick thing to do and know it would suck if a friend did that to me. Guilt isn’t required to know right from wrong.

This of course leads to the question of what exactly guilt might be. This isn’t a well thought out essay but rather just thoughts off the top of my head, but right away I can think of two clear distinctions. The kind of guilt you feel before you do something, and the kind you feel afterwards. Since it’s a little hard to not do something after you’ve already done it, for the purpose of this discussion I’m going to focus mostly on the former. I think we can all agree that feeling guilt about something you’ve already done makes it fairly easy to identify and avoid doing that same thing in the future.

Pre-action guilt can pretty easily be divided into two categories – the aforementioned self-induced stuff, as well the ever popular “guilt trips” or guilt put on you by someone else(anyone who was raised Jewish or Roman Catholic probably knows all too well). I think that pretty universally the guilt from other people very much wants to be the self inflicted stuff, and probably often gets mistaken as such. So what might these two subsets include? (NOTE: I don’t know, but that’s why I’m writing this post, to try and figure it out)

Self-inflicted guilt is probably a lot like doubt. The little voice in your head second guessing your primary intentions. And like doubt, it’s probably hard to identify unless you are looking for it specifically. Let’s say you are thirsty and stop by a corner store to buy a soda. Self-inflicted guilt might be the thing that makes you buy a diet rather than the full calorie version you walked in intending to drink. Or as Neil suggested above, maybe it’s hanging out with someone you don’t really want to because you feel bad that you haven’t spent enough time with them recently. Self-inflicted guilt might be the stuff that prevents you from doing something not because you don’t want to, but because you’d be ashamed/embarrassed/disappointed (in yourself) if someone else found out. Self-inflicted guilt is probably the difference between someone who works out every morning because they love how they feel afterward and someone who works out every morning because they’d hate themselves the rest of the day if they didn’t. I suppose it’s not so much the action, but the motive. The trick of course is that even if it’s a reaction from someone else you are trying to avoid, if it’s you who have decided they might have that reaction it’s self-inflicted.

Using my example before, I don’t think guilt is the thing that prevents you from doing something like stealing – even if you wanted to. That probably fear or common sense kicking in.

What about the guilt from other people, if you are looking for it’s probably easier to spot then the kind you put on yourself, but in some cases it’s probably just as easy to miss all together. Certainly if someone tells you something you do bothers them, and you stop doing it even if you really enjoy doing it, that would be GMB. It’s something you actively want to do, but don’t because you know someone else doesn’t want you to do it. That’s different from not doing something because of how it effects someone because it’s their suggestion, which could be implied rather than direct, that is preventing you from whatever it is you wanted to do. A twist on Neil’s example would be spending time with someone you don’t want to because they told you how upset they were that they hadn’t hung out with you recently. You aren’t spending time with them because you want to, but rather because they made you feel guilty about not being there.

I’d imagine there are certain kinds of relationships that foster this better than others. You might feel more beholden to a family member or close friend then you would to someone on the street asking for spare change. That said you might be motivated to give that person some change if you know a friend or family member might make you feel guilty later on about leaving them empty handed.

I’ve been approaching this from the standpoint that GMB is something you might want to avoid, only because that was how the topic came up. That isn’t always the case, and there are certainly times when ignoring those guilt impulses might be selfish and just kind of lame. Let’s say my wife has very early morning flight, I might offer her a ride to the airport even though I know it would be much more comfortable to stay in bed and sleep. She might even offer to catch a cab and let me sleep, but I’d probably still opt to just give her a ride. There’s no question that staying in bed would be selfish, and even if she isn’t asking for a ride I’d feel guilty if she had to find one on her own so guilt is probably a motivator but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Don’t get my wrong, I’m not offering because I don’t want to feel guilty, but rather because I know it’s the right thing to do and I know I’d be disappointed in myself if I didn’t. I’ve actually never made that thought progression until just now, and usually do it only because I think it’s the right thing to do.

It’s like the working out example above, working out is good for you regardless of your motives, so maybe the trick isn’t to cut out any and all GMB, but to reexamine your own actions and intentions, and adjust your driving force. If you stop working out every day because you think it’s guilt motivated, that might be a bad thing. But if you work out every day because of positive thoughts about the effects rather then because of negative feelings about yourself if you didn’t you’ll probably be a much happier person in general. Again, the action isn’t nearly as important as the motive.

Usual disclaimer, it’s late and I’m rambling so this might be complete horsecrap that I’ll be embarrassed to read tomorrow. Or maybe not.