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December 19, 2022

Don’t expect any New Year’s resolutions from me. I intend to remain the same sarcastic, lil’ bit pudgy, long-winded, foul-mouthed delight you’ve all come to know and love. Ahh, yes, it’s the New Year. I can’t believe it’s been a year since I didn’t become a better person. I thought about it last January and then a plate of heart-shaped raspberry brownies showed up at the office on Valentine’s Day, and my resolution popped like the seams in my sweatpants. There’s something about the first day of the first month of a brand-new year, when the last of the holiday champagne bubbles pop and we suddenly snap out of it.

While we gather up the empty beer bottles, vacuum the popcorn off the rug, wipe the nacho dribbles off the coffee table, and peel off our old, college-team football jersey, we get that stark glimpse of ourselves in the foggy mirror on our way into the shower and think, “Oh my God, who are you, and what have you done with the sexy person I thought I was? I’ve apparently morphed into a Dionysian goddess of post-pandemic binge-eating, binge-watching, and binge-scrolling, an Olympian sumo-couch-potato with the aspiration of becoming Jabba the Hutt. That’s it—enough! I’m making my New Year’s resolution starting right now.” 

Well…I’ll think about it, anyway. No, darn it, I’m going to redeem that gym membership seasonal discount coupon, clean out my fridge, and dust off that Nutra Bullet that’s been shoved in the little cupboard above the fridge for the last three years. Nothing but kale smoothies and egg whites for me.

I’m going to put out a swear jar, and…wait, that’s not gonna happen. But I’m going to meditate every day and limit myself to only 30 minutes of social media. I’m going to take daily walks, be kinder to strangers on the internet, clean out the garage, and come out with a New! and Improved! me. Because somehow guilt and shame seem to be the prominent motivators. But how’s that working for us in the long run?

Shame has long been viewed as “the toxic cousin of guilt,” but it has benefited us over evolution. According to a study by Pivetti, et. al., quoted by psychologist Joachín Selva:  

Shame is characterized by the desire to hide and escape, [this may explain the binge behavior], guilt by the desire to repair” [perhaps because we’re worried about how we look to others].

Shame and guilt are functionally designed to protect us against harming those who are dear to us [including ourselves], and to make us behave better in the future—which certainly could be a good thing in the long run, or maybe not. In foraging societies, people had to rely on each other to survive disease, predators, and scarce resources. Not being liked could be a death sentence because no one would watch out for your welfare or share with you.

Chronic guilt can turn into shame. Research on moral emotions shows “Guilt often relates to a negative appraisal of a specific behavior, whereas shame tends to involve a negative evaluation of the self: ‘If only I hadn’t’ as opposed to ‘If only I weren’t.’” So, feeling guilty about that doughnut in the breakroom you discretely stuffed in your face—a one-time “if only I hadn’t” scenario—can easily turn into “If only I weren’t” so weak, so easily subject to temptation. Such self-judgment, self-condemnation, and frustration can lead to depression and self-loathing…which can lead to self-soothing with more doughnuts or worse.

But if guilt and shame are your primary motivators for resolution, they may be short-lived and may even have a long-term reverse effect. We all know the term yoyo diet. Why does that happen? Now, I’m just spit-ball’n here, but hear me out. Believe it or not, guilt and shame activate the reward center in the nucleus accumbens area of the brain—primarily and coincidentally the same area we talked about in the December article on the Science of Giving. Sooo, if we get a neurochemical high when we feel guilty, then could it be possible to become addicted to guilt? What if we keep creating the same scenario over and over to feed (no pun intended…well, maybe) the addiction of guilt or shame? Huh!

What if we used a different motivator? How about positive rewards, like “I feel so much lighter,” “I sleep better,” “I’m free of pain,” “I have time to do things for myself,” or “kindness to myself and others makes me feel better.” (See December article on that last one.) Like the little exercise I gave you in the November Newsletter, focus on what you do want, not on what you don’t want. And watch the guilt and shame; it’s probably not yours in the first place.

Have the courage to leave who you were, love who you are, and look forward to who you will become.

We Wish You Love and Blessings in the New Yous.

By Radhia Gleis, Wellness Director

Bastin, C., Harrison, B.J., Davey, C.G., Moll, J., Whittle, S. (2016). Feelings of shame, embarrassment and guilt and their neural correlates: A systematic review. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 71(1), 455-471.

Tangney, J. P., Stuewig, J. & Mashek, D. J. Moral emotions and moral behavior. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 58, 345–372 (2007).

Niedenthal, P. M., Tangney, J. P. & Gavanski, I. ‘If Only I Weren’t’ Versus ‘If Only I Hadn’t’: distinguishing shame and guilt in counterfactual thinking. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 67, 585–595 (1994).

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