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The Truth About The Weight Of Guilt

imageI feel guilty sometimes about getting impatient with my kids. I feel guilty when I talk back to the strangers on the street who try to be “helpful.” I feel guilty when I ignore the thought that the person I just passed on the sidewalk might need some help, and walk on by.

In fact, I felt guilty just the other week when a friend and I were chatting and trying to wrangle our babies at the same time. As my 14-month-old wandered toward the stairs yet again, and I started to get frustrated with my friend’s insistence that she could help me find solutions to problems I didn’t think I had, I started to lose my patience. As soon as I spoke, I knew I had done it too quickly and too harshly. I saw her shoulders slump as she chased her own toddler in the opposite direction. And that’s when the guilt settled onto my own shoulders.

Usually, it isn’t too long before I can shake that kind of thing off, let it go, and stop carrying the weight of guilt around with me. But sometimes I’ll say or do something that digs in deep and weighs me down for days or even weeks.

And when I say “weighs me down,” I’m not being entirely figurative. Even if the scale doesn’t reflect any added weight when I’m carrying around guilt, it is entirely possible that I actually do feel heavier. A recent study published in PLOS One asked people to remember experiences in which they had acted ethically or unethically, and then to compare themselves to their average weight: did they feel heavier? Lighter? The same?

People who remembered unethical choices they had made tended to rate themselves as feeling heavier than normal. It didn’t matter what their actual body weight was whether or not they were overweight, underweight, or normal. The researchers even compared perceptions to other sensations height, age, hearing, smell and found that those perceptions weren’t changed by the guilty memories.

So that “weight” that’s lifted when you make something you did wrong into something right? That really is making you feel lighter.

It makes me wonder about all of those other “weighty” metaphors. I mean, things can ‘weigh heavily on our conscience’… but we also have ‘burdens on our shoulders’, and there are ‘feelings that can make us drag’ like being tired or stressed. If we were able to eliminate them, would we feel lighter and more care-free?

If so, getting a good night’s sleep, taking time for ourselves, apologizing when we make mistakes, and recognizing when we have opportunities to do better, are all things we can do to keep ourselves from carrying more weight than we really need to.

I believe that if we did those things, we would yell at our kids less, be quicker to help those in need, and less inclined to get in shouting matches with strangers on the street. That’s why, the other week after my friend and I were able to wrangle our babies and be back in the same place, I told her I was sorry for being short, that I didn’t mean to talk that way. When we parted ways I was glad I’d made things right. It’s not worth carrying around that extra guilt-weight. Not if I can help it.

 

 

image via istockphoto.com

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