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The Guilt Sword


As any parent of a child under five can tell you, developing a healthy relationship with guilt is essential to promoting positive social behavior and attitudes. Without shame, I have often glanced at my wife with a victorious smile when our strong-willed, four-year old daughter “actually feels bad” about taking a toy from her baby sister. Without the necessary, negative emotional response to misdeeds of guilt, we envision our children traveling down a path of villainy appropriate for Hollywood blockbusters, not school report cards. 

The counterintuitive celebration of guilt in our children is supported by the growing field of emotional research. Hadar Behrendt and Rachel Ben-Ari, of Bar-Ilan University, found that guilt resulted in positive coping strategies for interpersonal conflict, further pointing to the need to develop a healthy sense of guilt surrounding misdeeds. However, the guilt sword does not just serve to cut away the undesirable behaviors and attitudes we may demonstrate. As self-improving as guilt can be, it can be equally self-destructive.

The new year always brings with it the concurrent roll-out of the newest, and most effective motivational materials available. From “No Days Off” calendars to Strava challenges, when the ball drops, so does the guilt-hook. The problem with these well-intended motivational tools is that they prey on an already vulnerable characteristic of the population most likely to use them, our commitment which often borders on obsession.

The casual jogger and occasional weekend-warrior is unlikely to purchase a NDO calendar or sign-up for a Strava challenge, let alone be so committed to the task that they eschew logic under the blade of guilt. Yet many of us know this feeling all too well. When we measure ourselves by the weekly mileage total, our current run streak, or the ability to post to Strava daily, we run the risk of letting guilt be the driving force in our training, often at the detriment of sound training principles.

The reality is that maintaining a run streak might be the perfect motivation for you. A NDO calendar may be exactly what you need to reach your goals. But you might just as likely need a weekly rest day, need to take a couple days off to recover from illness, or need to pass on an evening workout so you can spend some quality time with your family. The key is reframing when and why we feel guilty. Rather than wallow in guilt over “missing” a workout, we need to train ourselves to feel guilty when we don’t do what’s best for ourselves, not what’s best for our Strava profile.

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