November 7, 2018


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There’s a time and a place for guilt. Most times it’s within reason—after doing something immoral, unethical, or unkind, it’s a necessary part of self-regulation that, without intention, keeps our emotions in check and subsequently provides a feedback mechanism for changing or continuing a behavior. Psychology Today assembled a short list of five types of guilt and how to cope with them. Interestingly, they preface with Freud’s psychodynamic theory of guilt and anxiety due to the repression of unconscious desires. With Freud in mind, the five types of guilt were listed as being: guilt for something you did, such as hurting someone physically or emotionally; guilt for something you didn’t do, but want to, such as having the desire to cheat on your partner; guilt for something you think you did, but didn’t, such as causing someone else’s misfortune by wishing it; guilt that you didn’t do enough to help others, including “compassion fatigue” which puts your own mental vitality at risk; and lastly, guilt that you’re doing better than someone else.

These feelings of guilt are fairly common, but they’re rudimentary. Guilt ripples far wider, far deeper below the surface of our psyche, mingling seamlessly with shame and regret to form what can only be described as “feeling bad.” Feeling bad deserves a category of its own, a category that occupies a shocking amount of space in the minds of people who are hypersensitive to how others perceive them, or even worse, how they perceive themselves. This type of guilt has aspects of the other five types, but it mainly describes an action done onto oneself instead of another person.

First, some context: I’ve noticed that college harbors an abundance of guilt in its students. Most of the time, that guilt is corrected without issue—for example, “I feel bad for watching Netflix last night, so today I will spend an extra hour studying.” It’s an automatic, fairly healthy example of self-regulation, which is crucial in academic environments where lack of assiduousness may be harmful to your grades. But what about guilt that is recurring, compulsive, and overwhelming, guilt that leads to unhealthy behaviors such as withdrawal or overcompensation? Where does this guilt come from?

I have personally been struggling with guilt this semester, to the point where my overall well-being has been impeded, stifled by a sense of defeat and resentment towards my decisions. It has come to the point where I feel bad about sleeping, eating meals, reading for pleasure, running, or even talking to people. Any time that is spent not doing schoolwork is time wasted. This is worsened by the busy school environment of Cornell, where being surrounded by stressed people working fastidiously nearby or studying for the same test I should be studying for, is physically taxing for me. The Psychology Today article says that people experiencing chronic guilt “mistakenly suffer under the illusion that they have caused other people harm.” Perhaps I feel bad about not studying enough because I am indirectly hurting my parents—er, their wallet. However, it seems as though my suffering is a result of harming myself: my grades, my future, my reputation. In this sense, my guilt is self-inflicted, brought on by what I see as my own irresponsible decisions. I’m continually stuck in a cycle of feeling bad about my decisions and feeling more and more behind in school, which is worsening my anxiety.

I couldn’t help but wonder how I let my guilt get to this point, how I’d completely neglected my own needs in order to defend the modern education system I am a product of. And I can’t pinpoint a time since entering college that this occurred, because it actually happened before college; this mindset began before I even stepped foot onto Cornell’s campus. Some time ago, I had this idea that going to a challenging, competitive, intense school like Cornell was going to require me to submit myself in advance. I thought, “This is it. I’ve been accepted, and it’s a privilege to go here. If I don’t dedicate my life to school and transform myself into an academic intellectual, I’ll be wasting my hard work and my parents’ money.” So like many others, I changed my mindset by prioritizing myself second and school first before I even arrived. Premature acceptance of the difficulty that was to come set the stage for future guilt—guilt of putting myself first in a place where not being studious enough, smart enough, or disciplined enough to study for six hours straight would lead to my failure. For me and many others, this became a catalyst for depression and anxiety.

Don’t get me wrong: We know that college is going to require some more effort and time. In preparation, we must build our mental stamina, start fixing bad habits, and gear ourselves for longer nights of studying. But what we don’t realize early on is that college takes our intrinsic capacity for hard work too far; it takes advantage of our developmental plasticity and goal-oriented spirit by promising success in exchange for debilitating labor and a host of mental illnesses. In this shady deal, us unsuspecting students don’t realize that we could be signing up for years of competitive paranoia, guilt, and a looming scarcity mindset. We’re mechanically trained to believe that the best way to gain the result we want, such as a good test score, is to stay up later and later, study longer and harder than the person next to us. In the process, we are inadvertently hurting our mental health—we’ve made overworking and mental burnout a norm, an indisputable part of college culture. Because of this, free time, leisure, and self-indulgence are now considered taboo.

Freud spoke a lot about the concept of taboo, and how we have unconscious desires to act on our taboo impulses. In our environment, these taboos may include partying, napping, watching movies, pampering ourselves; these are treats to be indulged in, things we say we want to do but follow with “I really shouldn’t, though.” If we do cave into our desires, we feel guilty for not spending our time more productively or putting it into schoolwork. The fact that overcommitment and exhaustion feel more normal to life than taking a casual stroll outside, is a big problem. Another interesting observation about surrendering ourselves to school is that some people enjoy a crowded schedule and are quite proud of what they are able to accomplish, which is no easy feat. But others take notice, and begin to compare themselves and feel as if they aren’t doing enough, which contributes to their guilt. It’s no wonder many people react to this guilt by overcompensating for their “lack of productivity” in unhealthy ways, such as isolating themselves, pushing friends away, and engaging in self-destructive behavior. Don’t be fooled by those who are exhilarated by their busy calendars: they, too, may become so consumed that they exhibit the same retractive behavior around their friends and suffer from long-term exhaustion.

I don’t have a real solution for this guilt epidemic because I still struggle with it. The thing is, despite all this guilt, I haven’t stopped doing the things that make me happy. I still shamelessly spend time with people I love, take time to work out, sleep eight hours, and immerse myself in extracurriculars I’m passionate about. I’ve accepted that these things won’t be changed—I’ll keep doing them. What must be changed, then, is how I feel about doing them and how to use them as a source of motivation. An example of reframing: I have just spent a day with my boyfriend, and that was time I could have spent catching up on work and studying for my prelim. But I don’t feel bad, because that experience made me feel comforted, peaceful, grateful. Sure, I still have a ton of work to do, but that doesn’t mean I can’t get it done. I won’t fall victim to learned helplessness, I won’t be defeated, I won’t let my pursuit of happiness put me at a disadvantage.

No doubt, there’s more to be said about this topic, and I still have a lot to figure out within myself. If you  are struggling with this type of guilt just know that, while it feels good to get good grades, happiness can also be achieved with healthy doses of self-care, acceptance, and meaningful human interaction. Let me stress: You shouldn’t have to earn the pursuit of happiness by doing any amount of work. You are worthy of happiness no matter what you do. And if taking a day off will make you happier, do it—your health matters more than your grades.