Posted by: coachingparents | August 9, 2007


By Lloyd J. Thomas, Ph.D.

Guilt is a powerful motivator. I am regularly amazed by how much of
our activity is energized by guilt. Some people spend all their
waking hours performing tasks in order to “justify” what they are
doing, or because they feel somehow “obligated” to do it. The
“workaholic” who spends 16 hours a day on the job, drives himself in
order to “justify his existence” as if job-performance was the price
required for his ticket to ride in life.

Often guilt-motivated people become resentful and fatigued (burned
out?) due to the frustration and confusion of constantly doing what
they think they “should” be doing or “have to” do, rather than what
they “choose” to do, or what they “want to do.”

One clinical definition of guilt is: “Resentment, usually kept
inside, over perceived and unwanted obligations.” For example: we
don’t want to leave an aged parent alone while we go out to the
movies. We feel obligated to stay with this parent. We resent that
we are not doing what we would enjoy. We keep that resentment inside,because to express it would be hurtful to our lonely parent. We feel guilty if we choose to stay home because we have abandoned our
perceived obligation to ourselves to have an enjoyable, entertaining
experience. We feel guilty if we go to the movies, because we have
abandoned our perceived obligation to take care of the needs of the
parent. Either way, we are entrapped by guilt.

Parents learn rather quickly, the power of inducing guilt in their
offspring. It works to get children to obey, to modify their
behavior, to control them, and even to punish them. “All that pain I
went through to give birth to you,…all that I have sacrificed for
your benefit, and you treat me THIS way?” Hearing such parental
messages on a regular basis, builds the foundation for a lifetime of
acting out of guilt, rather than from personal desire, or personal
values (what is really important to you).

Sometimes we convert what we truly want into a sense of obligation.
For example, let’s say a person really wants to help others, to be of
service to others, to experience the joy of genuine altruism. She
decides to become a health professional, a nurse. She trains to be a
nurse. She becomes one, and then converts her sense of altruism into
a sense of obligation. Obligation to work hard and long hours,
“because the need is so great.” Obligation to sacrifice all personal
activities on the alter of “service to others.” She has manipulated
herself into doing what she wanted to do in the first place. But now,
what she does is out of the burden of guilt…not choice, and the
probability of professional burn-out is increased.

Choice means you are free to “do it” or “not do it.” The nurse has a
choice whether or not to practice nursing, but thereafter allowed
herself to believe that she had no choice. She began forcing herself
to do what she thought she “had to do.” When her actions become based upon guilt (that unwanted sense of obligation), she will find it
almost impossible to decide what really matters to her, what she
enjoys, what would be fulfilling to her.

Of course, guilt is not confined to individuals. Charlie Kiefer, the
founder of Innovation Associates, has written: “Virtually all
contemporary organizations are built on obligation—obligation of the
employee to the company, obligation of the company to the employee.
With obligation so pervasive, it is no wonder that there is little
room for people to consider what they want. Consequently, there
cannot be genuine commitment. The best we can produce is a kind of
highly energetic compliance with our obligations, whether it be to the
task at hand, to other employees, to keeping the job, or even
compliance to the company vision and values.”

Some antidotes for guilt are: self-forgiveness; personal commitment;
exercising choice; risking action based on what really matters to you;
self-affirmation; creating what you want; and self-acceptance. Each
of these characteristics, when practiced, lead to relief of guilt.

The recognition of your guilt-based actions, and the practice of free
choice can lead you to a creative, guilt-free lifestyle. Freedom is
the universal antidote for guilt. Freedom…choose it deliberately,
use it wisely, or lose it certainly.


Lloyd J. Thomas, Ph.D. has 30+ years experience as a Life Coach and
Licensed Psychologist. He is available for coaching in any area
presented in “Practical Psychology.” Initial coaching sessions are
free. Contact him: (970) 568-0173 or E-mail: or

Dr. Thomas is a licensed psychologist, author, speaker, and life
coach. He serves on the faculty of the International University of
Professional Studies. He recently co-authored (with Patrick Williams)
the book: “Total Life Coaching: 50+ Life Lessons, Skills and
Techniques for Enhancing Your Practice…and Your Life!” (W.W. Norton 2005) It is available at your local bookstore or on

If you found the above column useful, feel free to share it with


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: