August 07, 2008

Guilt: it's not just for mothers anymore

[By Merry]
Photo courtesy of flickr

I have a cold.

Earth-shattering news, right? Okay, maybe not, but the reason behind the cold is interesting.

I got a cold because I went to a family reunion and there encountered a teenage relation who insisted on giving everyone hugs seven to eight times a day. I pointed out that she had a rather nasty cold and that perhaps sharing wasn't always a good idea, but she got hurt feelings and apparently the only way to make her feel better was to let her go around giving more hugs.

So now I'm sitting here sniffling and cursing my inability to draw lines, define boundaries, and say "look, I know you're needy emotionally, but enough already!" The neat trick is that I'm managing to feel guilty both about being a wimp (for getting the cold) and being a bitch (for hurting her feelings) at the same time.

Guilt works

Not only can guilt be used for pointless feel-bad episodes such as the one above, guilt can be effective for making sure you exercise.

I trained for a 60 mile bicycle ride once. I'd never cycled more than 15 miles at a time up to that point, but a friend and I made a pact to get up early every weekend for 10 weeks and train. Left to myself, I probably would have skipped more than a few training sessions. Didn't really feel like getting up... it's too cold out... it won't hurt to skip just this once ... pretty much any excuse I could think up would have been used. Some mornings I would look at the phone and think "you know, I should call her and cancel... but I don't want her to think I'm a wimp. She's depending on me."

When I got to the meeting place for the ride, she would show up and say "you know, I really thought about calling you to cancel, but I couldn't face the guilt."

We used that fear quite effectively to become fit. Then I moved away, lost my guilt-partner, and slid into slothful ways.

Can guilt get you off the couch?

Usually when I miss a workout, it's down to one of the following causes:

1 - Dithering. "Oh, I'll go work out as soon as I've started a load of laundry, raked the lawn, watered the plants, regrouted the bathroom and cleaned out the attic. Oops, ran out of time. Oh well."

2 - Getting distracted. Similar to #1, except that there is no intention of eventually getting up and working out. I'll think about it, agree that it's a good idea and I should do it, then remember that it's almost time for House and I have to take out the trash and check my email, oh look at those nice shoes in that commercial maybe I should go shopping after work tomorrow?

I figure if I can add guilt to dithering or distraction, it will act as the memory-equivalent of a sticky note. If I can keep the idea of exercise somewhere near the front of my brain, I am more likely to get it done.

So guilt works. How can I use it?

I thought there might be some study out there in Research Land that would give me some more hints on how to use guilt as an exercise motivator. But I didn't have much luck.

[ Warning: the following paragraph contains potentially hazardous levels of whining. Nursing mothers and women who are pregnant or may become pregnant are advised that the following may resemble their children's behavior and proceed accordingly.*]

Why aren't there more studies about slugs who know what they should do but don't almost always go out and do it? Why, in short, aren't there more studies about people like me? :(

[*Not sure what 'accordingly' means exactly, in this context, but it sounded impressive.]

Closest thing I could find was a phone study ("A phone study!" I can hear the jeers already) which basically summed up a successful strategy as 'stop talking about it and exercise already.'
Yeah, that was a big help, thank you so much...

No doubt it's true, but not what I was looking for. What I was hoping for was something along the lines of ways to trick, tempt, taunt or tantalize my lazy-ass self into getting off the couch. (Once I'm actually working out, it's fine. It's getting to that point that is the problem.)

Guilt has nothing to do with Viagra

Interestingly, what I did find is that there are a lot of studies about guilt and exercise in regards toward people with eating disorders. (Sorry, but I can't abbreviate that phrase. When I see "ED" I always think "Erectile Dysfunction" and get confused, since that condition almost never applies to the excellent bloggers who've written about this subject.)

It seems that people who suffer from an eating disorder apparently also tend to overdo the guilt about exercising.

One study of 230 women, aged 18-45, found that women "who always felt guilty after they missed a regular exercise session were the ones most likely to rate highly on measures for eating disorders." About 12 percent of the regular exercisers fell into this category.

I can't comment intelligently on this disorder since it's one that I seem to have escaped. (I have lots of other disorders so I suppose it balances out.)

All I can think is that guilt is a useful but potentially dangerous weapon. If you're one of the 88 percent who don't rate highly on eating disorder issues, if you suffer from low-motivation, have trouble getting moving, or in general spend too much time listening to your inner slug, guilt can be hella useful to get you off that couch and into those running shoes.

But if you're one of the people who need to watch out for eating disorders, you might want to go easy on the guilt, lest it trigger other issues.

I don't suppose anyone out there -- in the 88 percentile -- has any good guilt-inducing tricks I can use to get motivated again?


  1. ahhhh Jewish guilt.

    that's what we're talking about, yes?!
    I have zero exercise guilt but a raging case of I DIDNT CALL MY MOM LAST WEEK guilt.
    does that count?

    (Crab? just promise my MOM you'll work out and then dont. it'll work...she wont even need to say anything and you'll feel horrible!)

  2. Ah, I live with guilt. I look at my kids (16, 19, and 21) and instead of seeing their success, I think about all of the things I didn't do or should have done when they were young.

    Don't get me wrong, I celebrate their achievements, of which there are many. They're great, wonderful people, but I'm constantly berating myself for not being the mother I had hoped I would be. Sad, huh? (or, since I'm Canadian, Sad, eh?)

  3. Guilt rarely if ever works on me.
    Punted my conscience years ago.

  4. I love this quote from the phone study people:

    "Messages such as, 'Just do it' or 'Don’t think about it' may be all that is needed to trigger adults who are already seriously contemplating how to increase their physical activity."

    I call Bullshit!!

    I have decades of experience either getting myself or not getting myself off the couch, and believe me, "Just Do It" can help but it's certainly not "all that is needed."

    Have they never met any real life slackers? Jeez.

    Actually, I find the combination of guilt and habit to be pretty effective. Habit works most days, but in especially slacky periods I need to call in the Guilt Monsters to roust me. And some weeks the Guilt Monsters are on strike--but eventually they show up again and equilibrium is restored.

  5. Wow, where do I get me one of those teenagers who goes around hugging family members? That would be worth catching a cold!

    Sorry, but I can't help you out with the guilt thing. I exercise because I have fun and it makes me feel good.

  6. Ohhh guilt! The guilt. I am definitely in that 12%.

    I am trying to cut down on my cardio hours at the moment in a bid for a more effective workout, but I keep thinking something awful is going to happen as a consequence.

    My tip? Get a bad shower at home. In the old days, I would kid myself that I was just going to the gym for a shower. I'd tell myself that all I had to do was five minutes on the elliptical, and then I could have a lovely power-shower with my favourite shower gel (mmmm COCONUTS). Inevitably, once I got there, I'd do much more.

    The key is definitely bribing yourself to get out of the house and into a Place Of Fitness. Then you're over halfway there.

    TA x

  7. What about simply looking at it as 30, 45, or 60 minutes? What is that really in relation to the whole day, a whole week or year or your life? In that brief time of exercise, you can be superior to the person who chooses not to strive for fitness. You will get stronger, have more power, look better, and ultimately get to lord over the bystanders who look at you with envy, dreaming "I wish I looked like her."

  8. Girl...I need some of that guilt for motivation! My husband is away this week so I know that there is NO ONE on this side of the world to hold me accountable. Therefore I've worked out a total of ZERO times so far. Yep zero.
    I'm tempted to reverse that trend today and get in three workouts before he comes home but then maybe I'd be too sore for when he got back... (excuses, I'm good at those)

  9. Okay here's what you do: eat some ice cream. Then eat some more, and after that eat a whole lot more. You will feel so disgusted with yourself and so guilty that you will absolutely want to get up and exercise!

    ...not that I would know anything about this...cuz it's never happened to, *cough*

  10. I feel kinda guilty for missing my run yesterday and I'll be totally p.o.'d if I miss my run today, so guilt works for me (now anyway) on the exercise front.

    But I can't seem to guilt myself into a regular work schedule. As a grad student I have way to much flexibility which usually ends with me surfing the internet for hours, then hitting the trails for a run.

    Help a slacker out. How do I become more productive...STAT?!

  11. Try some new fitness-y thing, that's actually fun. Then think about how much better you could be if you were working out regularly.

    Speaking of fear, one of my suite mates my freshman year in college spent an hour a day on the elliptical "in case someone ever tries to rape" her. To my knowledge, no one ever did, but she lost 5 pounds.

  12. I just don't do guilt. I have so often sat there listening to people trying to make me feel guilty for not doing something (mostly in school, and mostly not teachers) and all I would feel is "What ARE you going on and on about?"
    I exercise because I like the way it makes me feel. When I don't, it's because there truly is no time or energy to spare. I don't push myself to do it, because when I'm too tired to exercise, that only leads to total exhaustion. I know my body by now.
    And Crabby? "Have they never met any real life slackers? " This was a phone survey--real life slackers don't answer phone surveys!

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  13. I'm a guilt factory. If I could export guilt (don't go there!!) I'd be a billionaire. I'm esp. so with the exercise guilt. I have a therapist. I'm working on it;)

  14. I have both Catholic and Jewish ancestors, so I know from guilt, believe me. If I spend money on anything like exercise equipment/gym membership etc., that usually makes me feel guilty enough to exercise!

  15. MizFit, I'm with you - all guilt is Jewish in some way :-)

    One way to use guilt to your advantage: I remember reading a story in Women's Health about real women and their fave sayings to get them through a workout (OK, OK, I was quoted in it - I sing the song Shoop by Salt n Peppa). But one woman reported that she says to herself, "This is not the hardest thing you've ever done" when pushing herself thru a tough workout. I love it.

    PS why do i feel this: "It seems that people who suffer from an eating disorder apparently also tend to overdo the guilt about exercising." is going to be written on many a tombstone? Not to be all Debbie Downer or anything...

  16. On the ED thing, I've cracked up inappropriately many a time on blogs because of that. Glad I'm not the only one. Makes me feel less guilty for doing so.

  17. Catholic guilt ranks right up there with Jewish guilt. (Poor Missicat, having to deal with both!)

    Xenia, maybe we should go for Tokaiangel's suggestion and trash the shower so we /have/ to get out of the house and thus get a workout if we want to take a shower? It's a sneaky kind of idea, so I like it.

  18. I don't feel guilty for not exercising so I can't help there. But what I've found recently to motivate me is my weight being very publicly posted on my blog for all the world to see. Nothing like knowing that everyone is watching that number to get my lazy butt off the couch. I'm with ya, once I get started it's great, I just have a million reasons to keep myself from getting started. Ohhh...a shiny...

  19. I wouldn't say that I feel guilt, necessarily. It's more that once the endorphins wear off, and I start realizing I haven't exercised in a while, then I start to feel bad about myself and noticing all those little things I don't like (a little tummy rolling here, some tight pants there).

    That said, usually if I have a workout canceled for some reason (like, if nobody shows up for class), I'm really happy because I'm usually at the gym so much I welcome the break. It's amazing how motivating getting paid to work out is :D

  20. My mom was a big fan of using guilt to manipulate me when I was a kid, and I hated it. Ever since then, I make a huge (Herculean) effort to resist using guilt on myself or others. (And I've had problems with disordered eating, so I think it's best to refrain as Merry said in the post.) I'm sure it can be effective and harmless for others, but for me, it just makes me feel bad...

  21. Even bulimia folks get up and puke which is a form of exercise. So, by sitting on the couch all day, you rank lower than a bulimiac on the physical activity scale.

  22. I have seldom found guilt to be a motivator, as it puts a demand on me and I am demand resistant -- as soon as I "have" to do something, it is demanded of me, I resist doing it.

    Instead I have to use the "I choose" method, as in, "I choose to eat veggies instead of having chips now."

    It also helps to have an accountability partner or group, even if it is online. I can't stand to let other people down.


  23. You know what works for me? Watching Fit TV when I don't feel like working out... within a few minutes, I feel so guilty and I am so envious of whoever is working at the time, I get it done.
    I know, crazy...

  24. Watching television to get motivated to exercise?

    Ooooh, now that sounds like a strategy I could use.

    Alice, you're a genius!

    Oh wait. Probably has to be a fitness-related program, hmmn? House definitely doesn't qualify :(

  25. I find blogging and knowing that someone is reading to be a pretty good motivator.

    Guilt, I find, often has the opposite effect on me, since I become morose and stubborn when I feel guilty. It's hard to run when you feel morose.

    Also, I REALLY want to know what that perfume smells like. What would "Guilt" smell like?

  26. Guilt is a great motivator. But good point on how it can also have negative effects- you've got to be careful with it!

  27. Forget Guilt. Go with Bribery. Barter with yourself that if you do it for 5mins you can watch House without the Guilt. Once your doing it, it will seldom last for only 5mins. Thereby you avoid guilt and slug-like-ness

  28. Nitmos, that was one funny comment.

    I can't seem to work up to guilt if there's nobody to let down but me. The guilt partner seems like a really good idea. Also the watching Fit TV. Also the blogging, which is what I'm trying now. Exercise 3 times a week is goal number 56. Not that I'm taking them in order or anything! I'm meaning to get right on that one.....:-P

  29. BTW there's an interesting article (touching a little on guilt) at The Simple Dollar on buying organic food.

  30. i like the bribery comments ... except bribing myself doesn't work.

    try to get a workout buddy ... even one long distance. you can call him/her and s/he can call you and ask, "have you worked out yet today?" you could lie, but then ... TA DA! guilt.

    maybe. it's worth a try, at least ...?

  31. I was thinking about this "guilt" thing a few weeks ago. For me, I feel guilty when I overeat or eat junk. I realized after a particularly large, greasy meal that it wasn't so bad to feel guilty. Instead, I should remember that feeling of guilt and next time eat a little less or choose a healthier snack. I totally don't have any eating disorders (besides eating too much), so this works for me. It helps to keep me in line.

  32. First of all, I have to say this has turned into my fave blog to read and I read many now...links off of links, etc. I even read all the comments and end up commenting to them! (It helped that I was one of the razor winners, my teenage daugher loves using it and hubby coveted it!)
    I have to whine about this, "One study of 230 women, aged 18-45" because it would seem anyone not in that age range don't count, but I happen to be above it and still feel guilt (imagine that)!
    My mom STILL uses guilt with me, sugar coating it the whole way. "Would you please do (insert disgusting task) for your loving mother who used to do (insert random motherly duties performed when you were a helpless toddler)? Do you remember when I used to (more tiresome motherly duties) for you, sweety?
    I am now asking my kids to NOT LET ME GET LIKE THAT when I am older (Then I tease them subtley in the same manner, having fun with it and making them laugh, which I should feel guilty about but don't!)
    I am like the two who said they are stubborn and won't do things out of guilt, rebeling against the mom in myself asking myself in a sugar coated way to do what I detest or in this case don't want to do!
    I'll do things when I feel like it, usually because I want to feel better about my appearance, not because anyone coerced me into it.
    I have two sisters who take after Mom so I should be a pro by now about how to avoid doing things out of any guilt trips.

  33. I forgot to mention what works for me and you could try it...put a treadmill or exercise bike next to the television and ride, walk or jog on it while watching House or any other show you enjoy! It helps you lose track of time so you aren't whining about 10 minutes feeling like 30 and it's a good reminder when you see them both in the same room!

  34. Ah, guilt. I grew up living with it and I couldn't shake it now if I tried.

    I even feel guilty when I try to make my kids feel guilty.


  35. Let's see...since I usually do have to *make* myself go to the gym, i've employed many failsafe measures.

    I have a gym buddy, who also happens to be my Sigifigant Other, who will know if I'm slacking.

    I signed up for the hundred push up challenge and use the fact that I have to do my push ups today and it's easier to do them at the gym.

    I blog it. Knowing that people are reading my blog and will know if I'm slacking off is usually enough on it's own to make me go.

    I signed up for this service at to have it email me every two days to remember to go to the gym. Having that email show up every two days keeps it in the front of my mind.


  36. I don't use guilt (except when I do, in situations like Jill suggested...not that I ever actually do that either..) so much as a half-hearted self-loathing.

    When I don't want to exercise, I start noticing the women around me or open a magazine or look at advertisements. I either see beautiful women who take care of their bodies, or hot-hot-hot men who I want to want me. Ensue half-hearted self loathing, both for my lack of perfection AND (mostly) my lack of self discipline and control.

    I know - that's a terrible terrible and unhealthy method. But it works for me.

  37. Guilt is probably one of my worst factors. It follows me everywhere...I used to tell on myself when I was little it is so bad haha. I beat myself up on it and don't easliy let things go =\

  38. T? "try to get a workout buddy ... even one long distance. you can call him/her and s/he can call you and ask, "have you worked out yet today?" "
    When I manage to walk at the park, I'm sometimes there at the same time as one of several women who walk round the path talking on the phone the whole time. From what I overhear they seem to be talking to people who are also exercising somewhere else. So long-distance buddying can be more than just a check-in.

    And Merry? How can you watch House, with all those dying/nearly dying people, and not get motivated to be as healthy as possible?

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  39. EAting disorders...guilt comes from OCD like tendances. Yet, even though I have compulsive eating disorder and guilt with food is just bad, bad, bad for me...the guilt factor worked for me in the exercise department. Now that the exercise program is over, I've pretty much stopped exercising :( Someone else counting on you is great motivation, even if it's only in your head. Now I just need to find a way to trick myself into thinking someone else is counting on me and I'll be good!

  40. there are 2 things that make me feel guilty if i don't exercise.

    1. i paid all that money on my treadmill, so i better be using it every chance i get.

    2. sparkpeople says i have cardio scheduled for today, and i can't let sparkpeople down! seriously, this makes me feel guilty.

  41. I feel incredible guilt if I don't work out, even when I'm very sick and have the zoomies from too much cold medicine. I use that guilt to get my butt to the gym 5 days a week for lifting, cardio, yoga, swimming or some combo of every day. I have a free trainer in the assistant strength and conditioning coach at the local D1 university since my husband works for the athletics department (I know hardly anyone has this luxury). I feel that if I'm not at the weight room everytime I say I will be I'm letting the coach down. He's invested a lot of time, effort, and knowledge in me and I'm not going to waste it. I also belong to the gym on campus which is across the street and go over there after lifting. I get to combine a visit with hubby and exercise so that's very nice. I've set mini-goals which the strength coach has helped me achieve. I don't really enjoy working out and being soggy from sweat but since I know I'm capable of it then why not? There's the guilt again.

  42. Guilt? LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT GUILT!! Jewish Grandmother, Catholic Grandmother...I am overweight, unmarried and live alone..I like it I am not gay but grandmas both think I must be...or I would be married by now oh I am 32 years old. When I feel guilty about my body I simply remember what my nephew told me when he was 3 years old "auntie you is so comfortable to sit on I love you".. SO there ya go I don't do guilt and I don't worry I love me. Take that you skinny lil girls


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