Guilt and Worry as Alarms

It was a client who first shared with me the idea that guilt is not meant to be carried around as a burden. Rather, it is more like an alarm. I liked this idea, and I have used it ever since. Recently, it occurred to me that worry is much the same. Both are like smoke detectors, warning us of a potential problem or threat. When the guilt alarm goes off, it says, “You screwed up! You screwed up! You screwed up!” When the worry alarm goes off, it says, “Something’s wrong! Something’s wrong! Something’s wrong!” In each case, just as with a smoke detector, there are two possibilities: either it is a false alarm OR there is actually a problem.

When a smoke detector goes off, the first thing you do is look around to see what set it off. Maybe the battery is low. Maybe your dinner is making too much steam or smoke on the stove. Or maybe there is actually a fire. If is it a false alarm (i.e. no fire), you push the button to silence the alarm and move on with your day. If there is a fire, you either grab a fire extinguisher or call 911. You do something about the problem. What you don’t do is carry the blaring smoke detector around with you all day! That would obviously be pointless and stressful; and yet, that is essentially what many of us do with our guilt or worry.

A more effective approach would be to treat your guilt or worry like the smoke detector. When it goes off, the first thing you do is look around to see what set it off. In the case of guilt, you might ask, “What’s going on? Did I really screw up? Did I hurt someone in some way? Can I do anything about it?” In the case of worry, you might ask, “What’s going on? What am I worried about? Is the problem real? Is it certain or even likely? Do I have any control over it? Can I do anything about it?”

If you decide that the problem is real, the next thing you do is look for possible interventions. With guilt, you might apologize, make amends, or fix the situation in some way. With worry, you might take steps to minimize the possible dangers or negative outcomes. You heed the alarm and respond accordingly. That’s what alarms are for. Once you’ve taken all reasonable steps to address the problem, the alarm should stop, because it no longer serves any purpose.

If, on the other hand, you decide that the guilt or worry is a false alarm, or if the alarm has not stopped after you’ve intervened, then you run into a small problem. Unlike smoke detectors, your guilt and worry do not have a reset button. You can’t just turn them off by getting a broom and whacking a little box on the ceiling. You also can’t simply leave the room, because unlike smoke detectors, you carry your guilt and worry around with you. The only way to escape is to turn off the alarm, and the only way to do that is to clear the air. Like waving a towel in front of a blaring smoke detector, you have to look at the situation, remind yourself why you believe it is a false alarm, and be patient. At first, it may seem like an impossible task, but there is a skill to it, and you can get better.

Ideally, we can learn to avoid false alarms by training our guilt and worry to be more discriminating. This means challenging any guilt or worry that fails to serve a useful purpose. We can also learn to minimize actual problems by refining or disciplining our behaviors. This might mean being more careful with our comments or judgments, treating people with greater respect or compassion, or avoiding unnecessary risks. If we learn to reduce both false alarms and actual problems, we unlock the potential for a life that minimizes guilt and worry. The alarms are still there to protect us in an emergency, but they do not go off unless absolutely necessary.

As a final note, I should point out that living a life with less guilt and worry may lead to the perception by others that you don’t care enough. Some people wear their guilt and worry like badges of honor, as a sign of just how much they care. However, this seems dangerous to me, because it links being a good and caring person with carrying around lots of guilt and worry. That reality may be fine and good for some people, but I don’t want it for myself. It puts suffering on a pedestal, and there’s enough suffering in the world already.