A little exercise to handle guilt

Are you a doctor who doesn’t really like their job? But you spent all this time—a decade!—learning medicine and specializing. Now you feel that you should make use of your training. You owe it to… well, to someone.

Or maybe you are a consultant/lawyer/banker and you attended an expensive university. You don’t love your work, but it pays well, and you need the money to pay back your student loans or to pay back your parents. Or you feel that you should have a highly paid job (even if you don’t like it) to justify your or your parents’ investment in your education.

Either way, there is a conflict between the status quo and the desired situation. And such a conflict creates stress. It makes you very motivated to change the situation. But something is stopping you—and often that something is guilt.

Now, I studied economics, so sometimes I like to put on my economist’s hat. If I do, we can view the (money or time) costs of your education as sunk costs. If you approach the situation rationally, you should not consider sunk costs. They’re gone (“sunk”) and you can’t get them back. You should decide what to do, including whether to change jobs, purely based on your future happiness.

This is a fine way to decide things in theory, but in practice humans do not reason this way. We are not perfectly rational.

If you feel too guilty to do something that you want, deep down, then no amount of me reminding you to consider sunk costs will make you feel better.

Getting out of this situation, in which guilt prevents you from doing what you want, starts with noticing that guilt. And I have an exercise for you that can help.

For the next 14 days, whenever you notice that you’re feeling guilty, take a moment. Use that moment to write down what you feel guilty about. Write it down on paper or on your phone, whatever you have handy. You don’t need to spend much time writing, although you can turn it into a good journaling session if you like.

Here’s an example. You’re leaving work early and you feel guilty because nobody else has left the office yet. You might write down:

“I feel guilty because I left the office early. I think it’s because it makes me feel like I’m not doing my best at work. Perhaps because I don’t really care.”

So just short little entries. If you’re having trouble noticing when you feel guilty, ask yourself every day at a specific time, such as on your commute home.

Can you start keeping track of your guilt today? Reply if you will commit to this and I’ll help remind you. At the end of the 14 days, we’ll see whether there are any patterns in your responses.


— Peter

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