S2E20 Guilt

No one likes feeling guilty, but have you ever considered that maybe your guilt is trying to tell you something? In this episode, Dr. Rubin and Dr. Pete dive into what guilt actually is (hint: it’s information!), including its evolutionary roots. They also distinguish between justified guilt and unjustified guilt, and effective ways to respond to each. And of course, the docs present how mindfulness practices and Zen wisdom can help us better understand and respond to this unpleasant emotion.




Nikki: Pete, we are talking today about an emotion that a lot of us feel for different reasons, which is guilt. Hey, Pete.

Pete: It's a good one.

Nikki: I don’t know if it's a good one.

Pete: Well I like it, go ahead.

Nikki: You like it?

Pete: I like being a character who's instilling guilt, like when I kind of…

Nikki: You like to guilt trip somebody?

Pete: Well, or like if I'm having a fun time with a friend and we are playing in character…

Nikki: I see,

Pete: I like to be that person, often from New York, maybe at the dog show, that character who like brings on the guilt.

Nikki: Okay, nice. I have to say, I was not anticipating, “I really enjoy guilt”, I was like, “oh, wow, this is not going where I thought it was going to go”,

Pete: And yet you have a total picture of the character I’m talking about.

Nikki: I 100% do, as clear as day. Well, the reason why I thought it was going to be really important for us to talk about guilt is that I actually think that guilt is one of the most misunderstood emotions. Because I think people really confuse actual guilt, which in dialectical behavior therapy they call justified guilt. With what DBT refers to as unjustified guilt, there's a lot of confusion that people think guilt is like, all the same. And it's not and that really ends up impacting behavioral choices people make. So you seem surprised hearing me say that.

Pete: Well, because I love learning from you, so I'm going to be listening to…

Nikki: Vice versa, love learning from you.

Pete: All of your tidbits, yeah. And then I'll talk…Go ahead, what?

Nikki: Oh, I was just going to say, because you seem surprised when I said like, I think it's misunderstood. Do you think that? Have you not had that experience or?

Pete: No, I haven't I Well, I think when someone has insight, they're aware of what's driving their behavior. So maybe that's where my surprise comes in. Because I think that's what you're probably going to tease apart.

Nikki: Yeah. Well, so let me…go ahead.

Pete: Because we know when guilt is driving our behavior like you and I would sort of know if it's there, like, “Alright, I don't really want to do this, but I'm going to do it because my mom wants me to” or,

Nikki: Ah, okay. Yeah, well, so this is where I would say people, but then guilt gets put into one big pot, as opposed to seeing some of it is justified, and some of it is unjustified. Whereas I actually prefer to say it's like, some is regulated guilt, and some is dysregulated.

Pete: Oh, I like that. Yeah.

Nikki: Do you? Coined it, coining right now.

Pete: You should.

Nikki: Yeah. So so let me first start by just talking a little bit about them, primary emotions, which Pete and I have talked about on this podcast that from a literally, like a biological perspective, and an evolutionary perspective. Humans and our mammal friends here, and our reptile friends too [inaudible 3:34] have this wider range, are hardwired with certain primary emotions. And that's because, think about our animal friends, they don't have language the way that humans do. And so emotions evolved to give us information, and every emotion is hardwired with what's called an action urge, which basically means what the emotion is telling you to do. So, you guys listening at home, if I say, “when you feel fear, what do you want to do?” Immediately, you're going to say what, Pete?

Pete: Run away.

Nikki: Run away, that's hardwired. And that's because the fear is telling you there's danger. If you feel sad, what is the sadness telling you to do?

Pete: Cry.

Nikki: Cry, and like…

Pete: Or for me, eat some Oreos,

Nikki: Or eat some Oreos. But Pete's 40,000 year old ancestor didn't have Oreos, and they wanted to retreat, retreat and withdraw. And that's like to conserve energy and recharge. If we feel joy or love, we want to approach, we want to connect.

Pete: Party,

Nikki: Party, right. So yeah, then there's more complex behaviors that can be built on top of these more basic ones. But the function of emotions is to give us information about what to do. And this evolved before we had the language. Okay. So this, in a modern era, we often talk about in therapy, how these motions can become dysregulated, basically mean like, Pete and I treat a lot of anxiety disorders, for example. And so somebody could feel panic while riding the subway, even though they know there's no actual danger, we call that dysregulated anxiety. And so what we do is we work with CBT and mindfulness tools to regulate emotion. Guilt is an emotion that I would say most people are like, not that well acquainted with the evolutionary function of it, like, why do we feel guilt?

Pete: Acquaint us please, Doctor Rubin.

Nikki: I will. Okay, I'm going to acquaint you guys, I will. So guilt is a really helpful emotion, that when firing appropriately and so again, DBT says calls it justified guilt, I like to call it regulated guilt, means that when we're feeling guilty, and we look back at our own behavior, we realize that the behavior we've engaged in violates our own value system, moral code in some way. So like, I value honesty, let's say I told Pete a lie, and then I felt guilty about it, that guilt is telling me that my behavior doesn't align with my values. And that's really helpful because it gives me an option to change what I'm doing, I mean, look, I could beat myself up about it, that's actually going to make me feel dysregulated,

Pete: Worse,

Nikki: It’s not going to be helpful. I could choose to come clean and tell Pete the truth, I could make a commitment to myself that I'm not going to lie to him anymore. But guilt gives us information about what to do. So before I go into unjustified guilt, what do you think about that, Pete? Does that resonate with you? Or is that something to talk about with patients,?

Pete: I think it's going to help the listeners understand how we break it down in that way. And that's, I guess, what I was also getting at, because I think in my sort of Zen training, like you realize that nothing's good or bad. And I we’ll talk, I guess, about some social cultural implications of guilds. Because it's really embedded in many cultures.

Nikki: It is yes, absolutely. Well, and I think, and of course, can become overly utilized. But what Pete's really saying is that, when we don't judge guilt, we just allow it, that information teaches us something. So a lot of people, let's say, there are people that might lie to a friend, and then they don't like the guilty feeling, and they do things to avoid it. It's like the guilt’s telling you something, the guilt is telling you, “you've done something that violates your own value system”. And that's not a judgment, it's just information, what do you want to do with that? Because [inaudible 7:38] listen to our values episode to get more records…

Pete: Because you might choose not to lie next time.

Nikki: Correct.

Pete: Like Judge Judy always says, you don't have to have good memory, if you don't lie.

Nikki: Is that what she says? Filled with a lot of wisdom, that one.

Pete: She sure is.

Nikki: Okay, so unjustified guilt is different. So like I said, I like to refer to it as dysregulated guilt. Unjustified, or dysregulated guilt occurs when somebody feels guilty, but they look back at their behavior, and not only have they not violated their value system in some way. But they've actually been acting in alignment with their values. So let me give you an example. Let's say that, I don't know, someone's boss has been asking them to work, I don't know, take on way more work than is in their job description. Like they're asking them to do things, and maybe it's like things that are really inappropriate, like, I don't know, asking them to pick up their dry cleaning or something like that. And your not…

Pete: You love that example.

Nikki: I do, have I use that a lot ? Probably hurt people. So that's, they ask to pick up their dry cleaning and…

Pete: Oh no, that last time was the mail, sorry.

Nikki: Oh, the mail. Okay. They're kind of similar. So it's like this is, your boss asked you to pick up their dry cleaning. And I don't know, you're a manager or something like that. And maybe the person, the manager is being told by a friend, “you know what? you should really tell your boss, I can't do that, that's not appropriate, I'm not going to do that”. And the manager says, “I feel bad, I feel guilty. I don't want to rock the boat. I feel I feel bad about it”. That is unjustified guilt, because asserting oneself and setting a boundary, and this is where unjustified guilt shows up a lot, is not violating your values. In fact, it's acting in alignment with a number of values, one of them perhaps being self respect. And so that guilt is not giving you information. But that's where people get confused a lot of times, they think the guilt is like, “I must have done something wrong”. It's like, no, you've got to actually zoom out and observe your own behavior to determine is this guilt telling me something? Or is this something that isn't telling me anything, that I need to actually act opposite to what the guilt is suggesting I do?

Pete: Yeah, and I was thinking, the example that comes to mind for me is like thinking of some of the embedded sort of cultural guilt examples, if we can go there, because I think a lot of them are dysregulated, based on what you're saying, because… Would you agree with that?

Nikki: Yeah. Well, I mean, I was raised Jewish, Pete was raised Catholic. In both of those cultural contexts, there's Jewish guilt and Catholic guilt, right?

Pete: Sure

Nikki: Yeah.

Pete: Yeah, I mean, I think Catholic guilt, many boys felt ashamed if they were masturbating, or premarital sex, or certain things about what you were not meant to be doing, versus what to do. And so you would think… I still to this day, you still think like, lightning’s going to come down and hit you. Because,

Nikki:  Right, it's using guilt to influence certain behaviors, that actually may or may not be aligned with one's own value system. And same, I would say, the same with Jewish guilt. Fortunately, in my immediate family, that was actually not a practice, but I've seen it a whole lot and been around it. And yeah, it's a similar thing. It's like using unjustified guilt to get others to comply with what…

Pete: So really manipulative.

Nikki: Yeah, well, and it's like, and I guess it's interesting, because the word manipulative, I always sometimes have a funny reaction to because I think that can kind of get thrown around a lot. It's like, I think people can manipulate obviously, but it's not always intentional. I think sometimes manipulation implies like intent, which it may or may not, but yes, it's not perspective taking, it's not thinking about the other person's needs, it's like, making somebody else feel guilty to get what you want.

Pete: Right. And I can think of, and maybe we'll share an example if we feel comfortable, but moments of guilt that maybe drove a certain behavior, and I'll share with listeners, I think, guilt… So it's regulated in this example, at least as far as I see it, but you tell me, Nikki. One of the things I say to my brothers often is, like, you might find your parents frustrating or annoying from time to time, and it's like, and they're here, in this moment, and they won't be forever. And so, for me, that's a regulator guilt of like, “I'm going to deal with my parents kind of idiosyncrasies, because they're here in this moment”, rather than, like being annoyed by whatever they're saying, or not saying, and feeling like, “oh, they're wrong”, or like this guilt is, ‘I'm a grown man, I don't need to respond to the way my dad saying this thing' type of thing. And it's like, my value is ‘do it for now, because really, who cares?’

Nikki: It sounds like you're saying that, even though your parents annoy you sometimes that you feel justified or regulated guilt, when you're not spending time with them, because that doesn't align with your values, that it's worth it to you to show up and tolerate their idiosyncrasies, because that aligns with your values. Is that accurate?

Pete: Exactly.

Nikki: Yes. Well, I'll share an unjustified guilt example. Because I think that's, and by the way, I do want to be clear about this, that does many times shows up around boundaries and setting limits. And so I would say, historically, like I've struggled with unjustified guilt, when it comes to like, showing up for people, like I have a lot of ‘shoulds' around it. Like, I should go to this thing”, or like I sort of over prioritize certain values over others, and to a detriment to myself, and so I used to feel guilty if I'm going like, “Oh, I'm going to say no to this social engagement”,

Pete: Can I just say that our nicknames for each other?

Nikki: You can, yeah.

Pete: So we used to call each other Paris for Paris Hilton, she’s a socialite, and our joke was always that Nikki was Paris socially. And I was Paris professionally. I was constantly going on like, talking engagements at work tours at conferences. So I'd say that to validate that, like, your social calendar was nuts.

Nikki: It was nuts, and Pete's professional calendar was nuts, and we both worked on reducing that. And for myself, it was because I worked on recognizing like that was unjustified guilt. That I was like setting a limit and saying no to things in the service of taking care of myself wasn't violating my own value system, it was the opposite, it was right in alignment with my values. But that takes practice, that's like a muscle to build. I would love to come back to justify regulated guilt here for a moment, too, because I also think that is something people often struggle to radically accept that guilt. Like that can happen a lot too like they feel guilty for reasons that are justified and they bury their head in the sand about it.

Pete: Maybe we'll go and maybe we'll do an episode on shame at one point, but I think this is kind of a cousin or like a peripheral sort of,

Nikki: Yeah,

Pete: Yeah.

Nikki: Well, I think like, what they say sometimes is like, when we feel guilty, it's about what we've done, and when we feel shame, it's about who we are.

Pete: Yeah,

Nikki: So that's where they can, so sometimes…

Pete: It can be synonymous in a way.

Nikki: Yeah, what I was going to say, sometimes people that have trouble radically accepting, justified guilt and acknowledging that they've done something that doesn't align with their values, they then take that on as something's bad about me, something's wrong with me. And then shame is activated, and then it's really hard to work on that. Because, people, like Pete and I talk about this a lot, people mess up. We mess up as humans, and people can do awful things, like everybody, I mean I can think of awful things that I've said or done, everybody. I mean, listeners can think about that, it's really hard to mindfully sit with that information and the guilt that shows up.

Pete: It is and I'll just bring in some of the Eastern stuff because one of the things that [inaudible 16:41] has written a little bit about this, and we show like reference at the quote unquote, ‘bad me', like the bad me, that's that guilt that kind of shows up. And because there's really like that view is as if it's myself. And this comes back to like there is no self, that selflessness like, there is no ‘bad me'. So any of that kind of feeling we're having about ‘bad me', will then be linked to like karma, which is this other concept within the eastern traditions, about like, the more good I do, and the more that I'm bringing good and less suffering to the beings around me, the better I feel in this life, or this moment. And so what we're trying to do, is, I guess, listening to your Western behavioral science definitions here, kind of bring some of that regulated guilt, detaching from it, to then do what's right or good, or just or align with my values, that then is also then kind of perceived as good karma.

Nikki: Yeah, that's lovely. And that's absolutely in alignment with what I'm saying here. Because it's like, it comes back to this concept of like, emotions are information. So we don't want to judge it, we just want to take it in. And if the information is unpleasant, that's really hard and our brains are like, “Hell, no, I want to feel that, I want to move away from”

Pete: “Escape, escape!”

Nikki: “Escape, escape”. But then that gets in the way of, as you're saying, like, contributing to putting more goodness in the world more values-based action out in the world, and then ultimately, takes you away from contributing to future karmic consequences, it sounds like. But it is worth I think, people considering how willing they are to really be with guilt, and use that as a tool to inform future choices, like, without judging it, like having, I mean, I think it's important to say here too, like, compassion, self compassion is pretty relevant here in this concept.

Pete: It would absolutely be. And I also think, this idea that the mind is innocent, so that, because I can't I think we're trying to hold on to something like you just said, with your dysregulated guilt, there’s a lot of ‘should’ statements around that, ‘what I should be doing', and that's a clouded mind. And if I really approach the mind in an innocent way, free from attachment, free from self, then I could really commit to this karmic reaction or this karmic behavior, which would bring good onto others and eliminate suffering as well.

Nikki: Yeah, there's a freedom in… here it is, all roads lead to mindfulness. There's a freedom and letting go of what our minds are trying to tell us and instead focusing on what is, even if what is unpleasant. I mean, hopefully, for those of you that listen to our other episodes, that is a thread through all of what Pete and I talked about. So with guilt, see if you can number one, get  curious about guilt, recognize it's not just one bucket of emotion, there is justified or regulated guilt that's telling us that we have somehow acted outside of our own value system and it's giving us the opportunity to change, or it's unjustified or dysregulated guilt, which means that actually, you haven't violated your own values at all. And you're actually acting in alignment with them. So identify what type of guilt you're experiencing, and then use that as information to choose what you want to do next.

Nikki: This has been When East Meets West. I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin,

Pete: And I'm Dr. Pete Economou. Be present. Be brave.

Pete: This has been When East Meets West, all material is based on opinion and educational training of doctors Pete Economou, and Nikki Rubin.

Nikki: Content is for informational and educational purposes only.