Guilt Gremlins Versus the Science of Behavior Change

March 13, 2012

How Not To Create Behavior Change: Willpower

Somewhere along the way, it seems a lot of us got the message that the best way to change an unwanted behavior is to guilt and shame ourselves into action.  I like to refer to those nagging thoughts of guilt and shame as the guilt gremlins.  Recent research on behavior change tells us that using our guilt gremlins to motivate ourselves to change is actually one of the best ways to ensure that we won’t create any change at all.  Such a strategy is also a great way to feed the guilt gremlins and make them even stronger, thus making behavior change seem even more difficult.  “This is Why I Will Never Be An Adult,” a post on one of my favorite blogs called Hyperbole and  Half, captures the cycle wonderfully.   (WARNING:  some naughty words are used).  The good news is recent research is shedding light on a much more effective (and nicer!) way to help us change.

Let’s look at how believing our guilt gremlins can throw us into the cycle of struggle.  It all begins when a behavior that used to help, or at least not cause harm, now seems to bring problems of its own.  We find ourselves contemplating things like changing the way we treat our bodies, our family and friends, or our email inbox.  We want to change in a way that is healthy and more balanced.  Our desires to change are good.  But change is hard and it is natural to look for motivating thoughts.  And so the guilt gremlins roll into the scene.  The guilt gremlins are happy to provide some motivating thoughts.  They tell us that we are a terrible person for not “doing better” and we can’t possibly be worthy of love/respect/friendship until we change.  Often this thing that we want to change feels like a Really Big Secret, making us feel all the more isolated with our feelings of guilt and shame.  The more we think about how terrible it is that we do this unwanted behavior, the louder the gremlins become. Eventually they wear us down.  Exhausted, we decide we need to be a different person RIGHT NOW!  And so we tackle change like it is a fight to the death.  We throw ourselves into change, accepting nothing less than total reformation into what we think will make us a better, more functional being.

Trying to change habits in this way – completely and immediately – relies almost exclusively on willpower.  Willpower, it turns out, is a lot like your gas tank.  We know this it true because there is a lot of great research is being conducted to shed light on how willpower works.  Willpower is not an infinite resource.  The more you try to change all at once, the more quickly you will run through your resource of willpower.  Willpower is a biological fact.  Unless you are a cyborg then you cannot escape the annoying truth that you won’t get very far using willpower alone.  Soon you will be running on empty and when you run out of willpower you will likely fall back to the habits that you were trying so hard to change.  Meanwhile, the guilt gremlins know nothing about the science of willpower (they are too busy making us miserable to have time to read the latest psychological research).  The guilt gremlins will use this “failure” as evidence to tell us that we didn’t successfully change because we are just a loser all along and we aren’t capable of change.  And so what started out as an attempt to grow and change becomes another painful experience that we’d rather just forget ever happened.

So let’s recap.  We decide to change a behavior in the direction of living a more balanced healthy life.  We start the movement towards growth by telling ourselves that we should feel guilty and ashamed about ourselves until we “do better.”  The guilt and shame catapults us into using all the willpower we have to create change.  This willpower works for a little while, but eventually runs out because that is the nature of willpower, and so we return to familiar behaviors.  Suddenly our guilt gremlins are jumping up and down screaming, “I told you so! I knew you’d fail!”  The guilt gremlins may start screaming so loudly that we will do anything to drown out their voices.  And where does that push us?  Right back to our old behaviors.  In fact, often our very noble attempts at change end up pushing us even deeper into our unwanted behaviors.  It’s a cycle that is all too familiar to many of us.

How To Create Behavior Change:  Self-Compassion

Just as science can show us the pitfalls of using guilt and willpower, science can also show us a more effective way to create lasting change.  This way is to harness the power that comes from self-compassion.  Pause for a moment.  Did you hear the gremlins?  They LOVE talking about self-compassion.  They often say things like, “Self-compassion?  You mean accepting myself as I am now?  But I’m a mess!  The last thing I want to do is love myself as I am today.”  They often say things to therapists like, “You clearly don’t understand where I am at.  If I wanted this wavy-gravy stuff I could have found a mountaintop to sit on.  Remind me, just where did you say you got your degree?”  I certainly can sympathize with that sentiment.  I was skeptical myself when I first heard about the role of self-compassion in behavior change. But after reading some of the research, particularly the work done by Dr. Kristen Neff,  and working with real people with real problems I have come to understand that self-compassion is an essential ingredient in achieving long lasting change and growth.  It isn’t the ONLY ingredient, but it does need to be part of any attempt at behavior change.

Self-compassion is what allows us to set a goal of a big change, and then take small steps towards this goal.  Self-compassion helps us cultivate the patience that is needed to accept that changing long repeated behaviors takes time.  Self-compassion helps us gain the long view, helping us remember that occasional slips toward a goal is not a fall or a fail.  Self-compassion does not always come easy but it can be learned.  If you are having trouble knowing where to start how about try this.  The next time you hear your guilt gremlins chiming in, acknowledge that they are there, acknowledge that most people have them, and acknowledge that they might not be the best source of wisdom on how to take care of you.  Then take a moment to think about what you would say to help a friend in the same situation.  So often we already have the seeds of compassion within us and we use it to help others.  Now science can help us understand the value of also being compassionate with ourselves.


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