Some people are natural-born athletes. Others are world-class at writing, “the arts,” or business.
Me? I am the International Cross-Category Heavy-Weight Champion in a sport called “Guilt and Self-Blame.” (Want my business card?)
I frequently mention that I used to be the most disciplined, ambitious, and productive person I knew for a long time. At school, I excelled at both partying and academics. I frequently trained harder in sports than everyone else on the team (often scoring two workouts per day). When it came to writing, I pushed myself to write every single day.
Looking back, I see how much of that discipline was, in fact, unhealthy.
It came from guilt and self-blame rather than self-love.
If I didn’t accomplish what I set out to do in my daily to-do list, I would feel worthless and depressed. I would also hear a tiny whisper that seemed to come somewhere from behind the wall.
“Psst…” the voice would say. “You suck…”
Running to the wall, ready to kick somebody’s ass, I would suddenly stop in shock and awe from realization.
The voice didn’t come from the outside.
It was in my own head.
Where the voice comes from
Most people had strict parents or someone in the family who used blame as a motivational tool.
In Russia, Soviet-bred teachers would often scold students for not doing their homework by humiliating them in front of the class.
They would make you stand up.
“Look at him,” a fat sixty-year-old Soviet lady who had sex three decades ago (if ever) would say. “This is the face of a person who didn’t do his homework. Shame on you!”
The entire class would nod — more from fear of becoming the next scapegoat than from agreement — and you would feel miserable, ready to fall through the floor straight to hell.
It’s funny how things that happened to us in childhood become a major part of our operating system, our modus operandi. If your parents blamed you for not doing your homework on time, you grow up a nervous wreck, afraid to disappoint everyone you come in contact with.
Only we’re not kids anymore.
We have a choice: believe the voice inside our head or not. Listen to it or not. Make it a part of our identity or refuse to because it’s making us depressed and is counter-productive.
That choice starts with a sudden realization: the voice whispering nasty things inside our heads — is not us.
The voice is not you.
You love yourself. You want the best for yourself. That’s the foundation of human psychology: we have a built-in mechanism that prevents us from feeling miserable or doing things that might hurt us.
Then why do we keep hurting ourselves, even if emotionally, telling ourselves that we’re not good enough, that we suck, that we’ll end up to nothing if we do 8 out of 10 tasks on a to-do list? Seriously, why?
Short answer: because that’s how society controls us.
Animals don’t have guilt. It’s we, humans, who invented guilt and blame. It’s a controlling tool: if you want society to prosper, everyone has to be “on the same page”.
But what happens if you deviate from the path and take the high road of individuality and self-expression?
I’ll tell you what happens.
You get mocked. Ostracized. Stigmatized. Thrown out of the group. Labeled as a “wacko,” “idiot,” “irresponsible”.
Then your brain (which is outdated like Windows Vista and still looks for sabertoothed tigers) goes: “OH MY GOD WE’RE GOING TO DIE HERE!!! GOTTA GO BACK ASAP!!!!”
The latest research says that rejection of all kinds (which includes group isolation and guilt) is not far from experiencing physical pain.
You start believing that voice. You identify with it.
And it stops you from living the life you want.
Guilt is stopping you from living your life.
Every second, there are two choices you can make:
- Listen to yourself.
- Listen to somebody else.
The hard part is how to tell the difference.
Even if you’re sitting by yourself, locked and isolated in a room with no windows, chances are, the chatter inside your brain is not you.
It’s a product of upbringing, content consumption, advertising, and society’s dogmas.
I know I am pushing myself too hard whenever I need to grab a drink, smoke a cigarette, or eat a box of Oreo cookies. People who struggle with guilt can easily abuse themselves psychologically to the point of depression.
At one point, the dam is so overfilled, it can’t take not being — or listening to — yourself anymore. The water breaks through the cracks and fills the entire brain from the inside.
Perhaps you don’t want or need to do all the tasks on the to-do list. Perhaps what you really want — or need — is to take a break. Perhaps the work you’re doing is boring. Perhaps you need a change in your life. Your procrastination is there for a reason; it’s trying to tell you something.
But guilt won’t let you access such a level of self-awareness. Guilt is never productive, but it’s always there.
And there’s only one way to fight it.
Tell the voice inside your head to fuck off.
You won’t believe it, but it’s true: my therapist actually taught me this.
“Whenever you hear a criticizing voice inside your head,” she said, “tell it to go to hell. Vocally.”
“What do you mean?” I frowned.
“Literally. With your mouth. Speak to it. See the guilt, that voice inside your head. Look it in the eye. Then realize it’s not you. And tell it to go to hell.”
So I’ve started practicing.
One day, I am sitting on a subway, reading my Kindle, when suddenly, there it is — The Voice.
I look up from my book abruptly as if hit by an electrical shock. The subway train is shaking, gliding through the darkness. Nobody is talking to me, so I immediately know what’s happening.
What do you want?
“Nothing. Uhm, whatcha reading?”
“You little bastard,…You shoulda been reading Seth Godin! You shoulda been listening to Tim Ferriss…You shoulda been watching a TED talk…! Oh, and you know what? While you’re all comfy here reading your book, there’s a to-do list waiting on your desk…those tasks won’t do themselves!”
I slowly place my book in a backpack, stand up and attempt to find my balance in the riding train.
Is that all?
“Nah, dude, I am only getting started! What about that workout you missed yesterday? Have you seen yourself naked in the mirror lately? That night at McDonald’s will get back to you…No girl is going to like you! You’ll grow hairy pimples! You’ll never have sex again! Oh, and you have no real friends! And no job prospects! And nobody cares what you write on Medium! In other words: YOU SU–”
“FUCK YOUUUU!!!!” I scream at the top of my lungs.
People riding in the subway all turn to me in unison as if we’re in some musical (La-La Land?) movie. I look around and feel my cheeks turn red. “Sorry.”
Then I sit back down and feel it.
Silence. Peace. And no guilt.
There’s no reason for blaming yourself — ever.
This is something I realized only a few weeks ago. It has improved my life more than anything else this year. It made me happier, more satisfied with myself, and, contrary to what you’d expect, more productive.
Here it is: there’s no reason to blame yourself — ever.
Self-blame and self-guilt never lead to anything worthwhile. They might help you get a task finished in the short term. But to reach sustainable, lasting peace and tranquility, you need to work on eradicating guilt from your system like COVID-19.
This is one reason why I hate self-help. Most “personal growth” articles online have the same underlying idea: “you’re not good enough; here’s how to change that.
I say, fuck that.
Unconditional self-love is much more sustainable.
- Didn’t write today? So what, tomorrow is another day.
- Didn’t get to 80% of tasks on your to-do list? Congratulate yourself on the 20% you’ve nailed down.
- Missed a day at the gym? It’ll be standing there when you have more energy.
Psychotherapists like to say (half-jokingly), “It’s never late to have a happy childhood.” A childhood with no guilt, no self-blame, filled with unconditional love, respect, and gentleness.
When you’re a grown-up, you have the freedom to talk to yourself like a parent you’ve never had.