Is Guilt More Valuable Than Happiness?

As a child, my parents were masters of guilt. Come to think of it, what parent isn't? I feel like it's one of the first things you learn in parenting school: The Most Efficient Way to Get Your Kids To Do Things With the Least Amount of Effort, A Seminar. Yea, I can't wait to get my hands on a hard copy of that manual someday.

 Although my siblings and I certainly had our fair share of yells over the years, my parents' trademark punishment was the silent, guilt ridden “I’m just really disappointed in you”—which is just about the most underrated, torturous motivator for change imaginable for any child.

In fact, the only thing worse than a calm, deflated note of disappointment was the absence of punishment altogether. In this crazy mind boggling way, it’d leave us all begging for punishment: “Please you heartless heathens, take away my toys!”, “Go ahead! Tell me how careless I am!”, “Hell, I’ll ground myself for a month. Watch me. You don’t think I will? I’ll do it damn it! Be angry, please be angry!”

The silent disappointment treatment robbed me of my fundamental right to complain about their unfairness and outdated judgement.  

Now at 26 and well beyond living under my parents' roof,  I’m beginning to think that guilt in and of itself might by the most valuable motivator of all. Come to think of it,  it was probably the only punishment that incited any kind of long lasting adjustments to my poor behavior.

Evolutionarily speaking it makes sense. As self-preserving beings, our brains are wired to remember negative experiences far more than positive ones. Remembering negative experiences saves lives—it's what keeps us from sticking our hands in fire, eating rotting food and yes, disappointing our parents. While positive experiences are incredible in the moment, negative experiences pave the way for future success and (hopefully) fuller opportunities down the road.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if maybe we got it all wrong. As much as positive affirmations and the sunny skies of the self-help world preach happiness above all else, I'm beginning to think that loving every second of my life isn’t the key to a fulfilling existence, guilt is.

At least in healthy doses. 

Unlike it’s self-deprecating counterpart, shame, guilt provides us with a temporary rush of discomfort that reminds us all to make better life choices in the future. It demands change. And in a crazy round about way, it heals us by providing us with the comfort of knowing that some actions just aren't worth taking again.

 It’s the intrusive reminder shouting “Yea, genius, you fucked up. Get your ish together and do better” or (for those us still recovering from counter intuitive parenting techniques) maybe it's more of a calm whisper of disappointment followed by a reprieve from punishment we all feel we desperately deserve.

So maybe today instead of swallowing your guilt or trying to ward it off with positive sticky notes around the house, appreciate it as precursor for a richer, bigger life somewhere on the other side: with a little more sleep, a little more smiles and at least one less morning-after regret.

Amina TaylorComment