Why Guilt doesn’t work

Guilt is a poor motivator for getting things done*.  It’s a particularly poor motivator for establishing regular habits**.

Why is it ineffective?

Guilt is ineffective because only a very small part of the human body understands grammar. The part that does is the left lobe of the brain. So this part of our body understands the statement:

“I feel bad that I didn’t do practice today, I’ll make sure I do it tomorrow.”

(I’m saying practice here because our focus here is embodiment practices, but it could just as easily be playing the guitar or spending time with your family)

The rest of your body (and mind) doesn’t understand grammar. In particular, your subconscious mind, which is 90% or so of your thinking, doesn’t understand grammar. What the rest of our being gets is “Object: Association”, ie it simply associates the thoughts and feelings together.

So what does the rest of our body hear when we think something like the above? It’s something like this:

“Practice: feel bad/tomorrow”

With the grammar taken out, we simply get a negative association with what we’re wanting to do lodged in our future timeline.

Even with a really positive feeling around this statement, we can send quite conflicting messages to ourselves

“Practice: feel bad/tomorrow/must do”

Try to feel all of these statements simultaneously. I feel kind of weird when I do it, there’s a dissonance in my body.

Again, a small part of brain understands the linear sequence that grammar creates, the rest of us just experiences all these feelings as simultaneous associations with the object of our attention. Which can be very confusing and easily leads to anxiety and tension in the body associated with the very thing we’re wanting to do.

What’s the solution?


When you haven’t done something you wanted to do, instead of feeling bad/guilty about it, try feeling curious. Eg

“Wow, that’s interesting I didn’t do practice, I wonder why, I’d love to do it tomorrow”

What do we get without the grammar?

“Practice: curiosity/interest/tomorrow”

Feeling all those things together, it feels very different. Even if you do feel bad about it, curiosity can have an amazing effect:

“Practice: curiosity (feeling bad)/interest/tomorrow”

What tends to happen when we apply curiosity to the equation is that the feeling bad about not having done something has a secondary, rather than primary, association with the object of our attention.

It opens up the negative feelings to exploration, whereas previously the association simply creates feelings like anxiety.

It becomes a lot easier to understand our feelings and reasons why we didn’t do it, whereas previously the lack of curiosity makes it nearly impossible to explore the reasons and feelings around it.

So, the next time you’ve not done something you wanted to do, step into being curious about why you didn’t do it: and see what happens.

I’d love to hear what your experience is.


*This isn’t scientifically validated, just what I’ve found to be true and hopefully it helps 🙂

**Some people do seem to be able to work effectively with guilt, but this article isn’t for them: it’s for those of you (and I used to be one) who’re plagued by guilt when you’re trying to get something done or establish a new routine.


  • >