Updated on 06.04.13

Guilt and the Choices of Others

Trent Hamm

The other day, I had a really interesting discussion with a former reader.

He told me that he had stopped reading The Simple Dollar because the articles made him feel guilty about being a spendthrift and an occasionally poor manager of his money. After some discussion, I found that he often also feels guilty about other interactions he has and observations he makes, like when he sees adult children having a good relationship with their parents or when he reads a website about parenting (he’s married and wants to have children, while his wife is adamantly against it).

Guilt. Guilt derived not from something in his own life, but derived from the actions of others, completely independent of him.

To me, guilt that seems to come from others has nothing to do with that other person. It has to do with you. It has to do with a sense that you’re not doing something quite right, that you’re not living up to some standard that you have set in your own mind. The person you see is (on the surface, anyway) living up to that standard, which shows you that it can be done and triggers bad feelings.

Guilt. Inadequacy. Resentment. Jealousy.

Here’s the big secret about guilt and inadequacy and resentment and jealousy. It’s incredibly strong fuel to get you started on changing your life.

First, thinking about those feelings will often lead you directly to where the problem is in your life. If you feel guilty about someone’s relationship with their parents, that might be an indication that you need to work on your own. If you feel guilty about someone else’s spending habits, that might be a sign that you need to re-evaluate how you spend money.

Second, emotion is a powerful fuel for change. I often use such emotional cues to help me stay in line with the behaviors I want to achieve. For example, the best fuel I have for controlling my diet is a picture of my children sitting on my lap where I don’t look like I feel very well. I look sort of bloated and exhausted in the picture.

That picture makes me feel really guilty and I don’t like looking at it. But looking at it resolves me towards knowing that I need to make changes in my life. A month ago, I stuck that picture in a place where I see it every day. In a month, I’ve lost ten pounds.

Third, evaluating what kind of life you really want can really quell the jealousy and other negative feelings. What kind of life do you want to lead? What are your core values? What are your long term goals?

That decision process is often hard and it can mean putting aside some things that previously seemed very important to you. The end result of that process is incredibly valuable, though. You know what you’re working for in life and why. You’ve already thought through your choices and you’ve chosen a small set of things that you know are important to you – and you’ve come up with a plan to work towards them.

At that point, the choices of others become just that – their choices. They’re not your choices. They’re on a different path than you, with different goals and dreams for the future.

I’ll give you an example. My neighbor runs several miles almost every day. I have never been able to do that – for one, I don’t think my knees could have sustained it, even in high school. She’s in great shape and on some level, I could be jealous of that. But I also know that she’s chosen a different goal in life than I have and I see that she’s working very hard to achieve that goal.

Realizing that changes my views on what she’s doing from guilt about what I’m doing (or not doing) to a sense of being impressed with her and almost wanting to encourage her. When I see her running, I almost want to applaud. She’s got a goal and she’s working her rear end off to achieve it – and that’s awesome, no matter who’s doing it.

In fact, sometimes I take that as motivation for me to do the same thing towards my goals. If my neighbor can work that hard towards a goal, then I can work that hard towards my goal and sacrifice a little fun along the way.

But.. but… that other person had some unfair advantages! Everybody has some advantages. The dirt-poor kid has access to scholarships and grants that the middle class kid can’t touch. The new immigrant has access to subcultural groups that the longtime resident can never be involved with. The person with a lot of ground to make up often ends up with a story to tell – one that they can sell – when they do break through with success. The person with a low income has access to food pantries, WIC, welfare, Medicaid, and charities that are unavailable to the middle class and above.

The best you can do is look at where you’re at, look at all of the resources available to you in that position, and come up with the best plan you can to get to where you want to go. Set a goal, build a plan, and start executing. It doesn’t really matter what other people have or don’t have – it matters what you have.

Former reader, if our conversation somehow convinced you to peek in here again, take this to heart: if you’re feeling guilty about something, you’re in the perfect situation to sit down and take stock of your life. Why do you feel guilty? What could you be doing different? What are your goals in life? Figure them out, state them, and start working towards them.

It’ll make the guilt melt away like ice cream on a warm summer afternoon.

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  1. Tracy says:

    I like the idea of this post but I think you went in the wrong direction when you started making guilt = jealousy. They’re not the same, but you’re making them the same in this.

    I’d love to see this done from the aspect of dealing with guilt about not living up to expectations (own or others) rather than the weird jealousy/motivation angle it went down.

  2. Ruth says:

    It’s not the case that some people have magically good joints and other people’s joints can’t stand up to exercise. Joint stability improves along with muscles as you build up your stamina, and joint pain and weakness gradually go away.
    When I hear people say “I can’t run like that because of my knees” I always wonder if they have had some kind of knee replacement surgery, or if they were forced to run two miles in high school PE with no buildup, had knee pain, and decided that their knees weren’t up to snuff.

  3. Katie says:

    It’s not the case that some people have magically good joints and other people’s joints can’t stand up to exercise.

    No, it’s not the case that it’s “magical.” It is the case that some people genetically have joints that high impact exercise is going to have a problem for. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other people who can build up their stamina through regular exercise. Yay, human diversity.

  4. JustinP8 says:

    @Ruth – I tried to ease into running…and even with an ease into it approach, wound up with a baseball-sized swollen knee. A few months later…hand pain. A few doctors later, Rheumatoid Arthritis. So, while it’s not the case that some people have magically good joints, it is the case that someone could have dormant problems and not know about it.

    All that being said, definitely see a doctor if you start having chronic joint pain. Also, try to have an open mind when you think someone is whining because you have no way of knowing, and sometimes…neither do they. They just know it hurts.

  5. Roberta says:

    “The dirt-poor kid has access to scholarships and grants that the middle class kid can’t touch. The new immigrant has access to subcultural groups that the longtime resident can never be involved with. The person with a lot of ground to make up often ends up with a story to tell – one that they can sell – when they do break through with success. The person with a low income has access to food pantries, WIC, welfare, Medicaid, and charities that are unavailable to the middle class and above.”

    So these are the people whom you name as examples of those having “advantages”? Wow.

  6. Laundry Lady says:

    If guilt motivates you to change your life, then great, if not then it’s useless. Guilt can be a good motivator, if it’s based on reality. But there is no point feeling guilty about things that are unchangeable, such as past actions. Regret can’t change what’s already past, I can only try to prevent repeating similar actions in the future. Guilt is also useless if you feel guilty for things you have no plan or desire to change. I often feel guilty as a stay at home mother because I’m not contributing financially to our household. But that isn’t going to change and both my husband and I still belive that it is the right decision, so my guilt is pointless and only saps my energy and distracts me from investing myself in other pursuits. Use guilt wisely or it will keep you from focusing on the thigs that really matter to you.

  7. Leah says:

    Roberta, I think what Trent was going for with the examples is that *everyone* has some sort of advantage. You just need to look around and see what it is. I could be wrong, but I assume he picked those groups because those are often ones that are thought of as severely disadvantaged.

  8. Kathryn says:

    Thanks for this “kick in the butt” issue today. I’ve been struggling with envy, and trying to figure out why a particular relationship is bothering me. Good reminders, thank you.

    Wish you could tell me how to share this concept with someone in my life who only sees the negative, sigh. She DOES have a hard life, but when 100% of people & circumstances are “against you” i say it is time to look for a common thread. When i’m in this place, the problem is ME. But sharing that with someone focused on the negative is dicey. Hard to do without being preachy.

    You did a great job, i think, Trent.

  9. Tom Denver, CO says:

    Great post. I’m trying to teach my “entitled” stepson everything in the post, but mostly, “But.. but… that other person had some unfair advantages! Everybody has some advantages. ”

    #5 Roberta – YES! They DO have advantages and Trent’s right. They’re advantages that many of us don’t have. Example: I volunteer at a bicycle shop/co-op where the “disadvantaged” can come into the shop, work on their bikes for FREE, learn how to do things with the shop mechanic, get free parts and walk out with a fixed bike. FREE! My stepson has the advantage of money. He has to pay for such services. He does not qualify for those bike shop advantages. Trent didn’t single out one group as having advantages. Kindly re-read the post, starting at “But… but…”

    What I read from this post was: Quit your whining, grab your boot straps and pull. You can do it.

  10. I’m not sure why, but when you said you “almost” want to applaude her and “almost” want to encourage her, it made me puke in my mouth a little. Why “almost”? You make it seem like encouraging someone is a bad thing, something that you need to force yourself to do.

    I guess you lost me on the running neighbor analogy since I thought you had physical fitness and health goals but then say your goals are different from her’s. Kind of weird, if you ask me. Whatever. I’m going to go rinse my mouth out.

  11. Katie says:

    He has to pay for such services. He does not qualify for those bike shop advantages.

    But he has the advantage of getting the services. Because he has money to pay for them. Just like people who get them for free but don’t have money get to take advantage of the service because a specific program was put into place to compensate for the disadvantage of not having money. Something to put someone else sort of on an equal footing with people who have a lot of money is not really an “advantage.”

  12. Johanna says:

    @Tom: The whole point of the “bootstraps” metaphor is that pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps is *impossible*.

    I love (where “love” in this context means “am starting to get seriously irritated by”) these implorations to “quit whining” directed at nobody in particular.

  13. Gretchen says:

    This is why you have the kids or no kids discussion before getting married.

    (or maybe they did, and someone changed their mind. I don’t know.)

  14. Johanna says:

    Trent: The fact that you included the pre-emptive defensive comment about the “unfair advantages” suggests to me that you may be feeling some guilt on this issue yourself. Maybe you can take your own advice and use that guilt to fuel some change.

    None of us can get rid of the privileges we enjoy (and speaking for myself only, I’m not so sure I’d want to even if I could), but we can examine them, and we can think about how our words might come across to people in different situations.

  15. Gretchen says:

    And much like Roberta, I don’t belive qualifying for WIC, etc puts you at an advantage above the middle class.

  16. JOA says:

    I think the post would have been better if it had been more of a “life isn’t fair for anyone” kind of post. For example, I was born middle-middle class and because of that I have been able to work my way into upper middle class. However, I am infertile. Life isn’t fair all the way around. I think the best way to live is to take the “advantages” that you have been given and do what you can to create the best life for yourself and those around you.

  17. Johanna says:

    I think the post would have been better if it had been about the motivating power of guilt, and if Trent had left the “unfair advantages” stuff out of it altogether. But apparently he wants to talk about that, again, so here we go.

  18. Another Dave says:

    Coincidental post that I was thinking of a very similar topic this morning. My Wife mentioned that alot of her friends are in nice houses, more settled, and farther along in thier financial paths. But they are also 10 years older! Her and I both assocaite with an older crowd. We’ve always gravitated that way, enjoying time with the parents of our peers as much as the peers themselves. But that leads us to some of the same guilt/envy feelings that can crop up. We compare ourselves to these people and have to force a “correction factor” into the equation. Becuase we’re 10years behind. It’s a feeling I’m trying to keep under control becuase it is easy to feel like we’re “behind in life”. At the same time, it’s a great motivator and gauge. We have a measure of foresight, and can learn from thier mistakes.

  19. David says:

    I am curious: what would constitute a “fair advantage”?

  20. Esme says:

    Johanna.. if Trent is just soo tedious, feel free to go to another blog or somewhere else. I mean, really-nobody’s dragging you along. Your cynicism has become as tiresome as you claim Trent’s topic to be.

  21. kristine says:

    I prefer to put a picture of my svelte self in a bikini as a positive goal, rather than a picture that makes me feel bad about myself every day.

    I find it very odd, the mention of the baby issue, and then the answer in no way could be applied to that example. Should the former reader change his life by divorcing? Getting a surrogate and having a baby without his wife’s approval? Pressuring his wife to conceive?

    I just find it very odd to mention such a deeply personal anecdote without it really being relevant to the rest of the article. The point of guilt as a change impetus could have just as easily been made without it. I feel kinda vicariously unduly exposed for this guy. I have to doubt he meant for that exchange to be broadcast.

  22. marta says:

    “The person with a low income has access to food pantries, WIC, welfare, Medicaid, and charities that are unavailable to the middle class and above.”

    First you tell people not to be “ashamed” to resort to such programs (implying that there is actually shame in that), and now you label them as *advantages*?

    You know, you can have them if you want to. Just take that low-pay green beans picking job.

    Gosh. I, too, agree, this post would have been better if you hadn’t gone down that path.

  23. I base nothing whatsoever on what others think of me. Nothing at all. Actually, I think this is a key to becoming truly frugal. I hear the whipsers from time to time that I am “cheap”. You know what, I just smile to myself and go on about my business. These people have no clue that being “cheap” has nothing to do with being “frugal”. They are too completely differnet topics.

    As I said, I live by my own set of rules and could care less what people tyhink of me.

  24. kristine says:

    David- I agree with you completely. The only exceptions are: it matters to me that people think I am honest, clean, and have raised my kids to be kind and well-mannered. (The clean comes from my great grandma- the ‘ol cleanliness is next to godliness saying)

    But if they say I am being cheap because I do not ascribe to the norm of over-consuming/spending, well, I tend to feel sorry that they have been normalized right out of their common sense!

  25. You may have lost a reader, but you did this guy a favor by helping him become aware of an incongruency in his life. It’s common for people to blame the messenger when they get to that first stage of awareness. You did a good deed, and he’ll sort it out at some point.

  26. almost there says:

    I too think that Trent should not have brought the poverty of the lesser incomes and their “advantages” into the equation. There is an increasing population in our society that do not pay any federal taxes based on their lower income and our progressive tax structure. They have no skin in the game so the pols pander to them. Pretty soon there will be no middle class as an ever increasing amount of us will be forced via taxation into the “advantaged” lot. Then we will all achieve the advantages of the great unwashed. Our laws used to strive for equal chances in life, not equal outcome. Of course, there are two golden rules in our society. The one most learn is based on religous teachings and the other is that those with the gold rule. Always has been and always will be. By striving to better our lot in life via our industry we try to move into the latter camp by ever slight a degree.

  27. Interested Reader says:

    I think that maybe Trent’s example of low income people getting WIC and scholarships was supposed to be directed at a certain group of people.

    I see them often in blog comments (not here, elsewhere) and occasionally in real life – people who have good paying jobs, a nice house, good cars, but whose budgets are stretched for whatever reason. So they whine about the unfair advantage that lower income people get via WIC, food stamps, Medicaid, etc. Uusually the low income (or in some cases no income ) people are described as being lazy, dishonest and cheating the system to get an advantage.

    However, I’m not sure if that’s what Trent was talking about because his post is not very clear.

    I know people are going to jump on me if I say this but if Trent would take more time on some of his posts and expand his ideas a little bit more there wouldn’t be this kind of confusion.

  28. James says:

    I have to say that this post is one of the most thoughtful and kind responses that I have read in a long time. It is a very supportive gesture to someone else’s very honest sharing. Your post was heartening, inspirational, and instructional.

  29. I get what you mean about the guilt thing. I have increasingly noticed that people in general find it difficult to accept the words and actions of others without wanting to argue about them even to the smallest of details. We see it running rampant in politics where one comment turns into a major political debate covered by all the news channels. There are as many opinions as there are different people and it can be fun, challenging, and enlightening to listen to them without feeling they were trying to personally stab us.

  30. Telephus44 says:

    Honestly, I’m not quite sure that “guilt” is always the wrong emotion. For example, I am a mother who works full-time outside the home. I stayed home with my son for 6 months, and we are both much happier now that I am back at work. So personally, I know that this is the best decision for me and my family. But I will admit that every time I read something about “Oh, I got to spend an hour making cookies with my son today because I stay home with him, I feel sorry for all those working moms who are stuck at work today” I do feel a really strong negative emotion. But it’s not guilt. I feel in some ways the article is trying to make me feel guilty, make me feel like a bad mom – even though I’ve already come to the decision that I’m not a bad mom and I am doing what’s best. Some people probably think that getting defensive really means that deep down I’m feeling guilty, but honestly, I know it’s not guilt. It’s not envy. Maybe it’s anger at not being understood or being attacked?

  31. Katie says:

    Maybe it’s anger at not being understood or being attacked?

    Right, defensiveness isn’t always about guilt. Sometimes you’re defensive because people really are attacking you. I mean, it’s important to know the difference but people are too quick to dismiss any defensive feelings as unjustified, I think.

  32. Amanda B. says:

    Wow. Just wow. What I heard from this article was essentially “look for the tender spots, then explore the reason for the response”. I think a lot of those commenting need to explore why the word “advantage” upsets them so much. Free food is an advantage, regardless of what it takes for you to get it. A good job is an advantage, even if it excludes you from free food. It is really odd to me that that one paragraph causes such a kerfuffle.

  33. chacha1 says:

    @Amanda, I agree with your restatement entirely. It’s important to recognize our feelings, but it’s crucial to then examine WHY we feel a certain way. An unconsidered response is just a reflex.

  34. Evita says:

    Trent, if you are overweight, it is certainly wise to avoid running as it puts too much stress on already stressed knees!

    But “guilt” could push you to exercice if you are not doing it already. But I feel that negative emotions are not great motivators….. too depressing.

  35. Interested Reader says:

    Again, I think the lack of clarity in the post is causing some confusion.

    For example Trent’s neighbor – if she’s just running for exercise how is that a different goal? Or does she run to train for marathon– I could see how that’s a different goal, although I can’t see how it would make Trent jealous unless he wanted to be able to run or run marathons.

    And going back to the example of people with an unfair advantage – usually the people listed are those who have money – were born into it or got lucky. You don’t often see a list of low income/working poor listed as having an unfair advantage.

    Over all I get the point that Trent was trying to make, but again, if he’d taken a little bit more time on the post there wouldn’t be this kind of confusion.

    This isn’t the first time that there’s been a “kerfuffle” over something Trent wrote that was unclear.

  36. Steven says:

    #20 Esme

    I find my view align with Johanna’s much more so than Trent’s. But I read TSD because it provides me a different perspective from someone with a different upbringing.

    From a while back, if I remember correctly, Johanna had a background similar to mine, and so I find my views are quite different from Trent’s and pretty similar to Johanna’s.

    And being poor is an advantage? Haha… that’s rich… spoken like a true person who’s never experienced poverty.

  37. Riki says:

    I was also confused about the statement regarding the running neighbor’s goal. Trent: how do you know what her goal is? How is it different from yours? The way that paragraph reads, it almost implies that her goal is physical fitness while your goal is parenthood. I don’t get what you were trying to say.

    This post doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, period. It started with one point, ended on another, and neither was explained.

  38. Amanda B. says:

    First of all, everyone needs to take a moment and say the word “kerfuffle” out loud. I think it will make you feel better.

    Second, being poor is not is not an advantage in and of itself. However, being below the income requirements for grants that allow you to go to school for free is an advantage. I don’t see how you could argue otherwise. Two students, one from a middle class family and one from a poor family go to the same school, get the same degree and go out and get the same job. The first has $60K in student loan debt, the second has none. Is this one advantage enough to make the second kids life “better”? That is impossible to say. Trent’s point was that in most situations you can look at anyone and see them as having an advantage over you. Or, you can focus on the tools in your toolbox to meet your goals. (and by the way, this is coming from some one who has spent a long time broke who is married to someone who has been poor. Really poor. As in no water or electricity, sharing a can of beans with his brother poor, and he and I are on the same page here. I don’t see what the point of questioning someone’s impoverished street cred is.)
    Kerfuffle, kerfuffle, kerfuffle.

  39. Interested Reader says:

    Amanda, I understand what you are saying. And after re reading Trent’s post I understand that point tht he was trying to make.

    But I had to reread that portion of the post to really understand what he was saying. I can get most of what Trent is trying to say but this wasn’t very well written.

    There’s still confusion over what the point of the example with the neighbor is about. I know he’s trying to illustrate a point, but why are the goals different.

    I also wanted to point out that this isn’t the first time there has been a krefuffle in the comments because Trent’s writing isn’t very clear.

  40. Katie says:

    Two students, one from a middle class family and one from a poor family go to the same school, get the same degree and go out and get the same job. The first has $60K in student loan debt, the second has none. Is this one advantage enough to make the second kids life “better”?

    I think this is a fairly limited example, though. Yeah, kids who have parents who, the financial aid calculators say, can pay for college but who (a) refuse to or (b) actually can’t are in a crappy position. But this does not equate to some overarching privilege poor kids have because occasionally they can get monetary benefits that kind of sort of level the playing field between them and kids whose parents can afford to pay for college. I mean, really.

  41. Jackie says:

    Amanda, That scholarship doesn’t even begin to level the playing field. If it did, universities would be full of students from poor and working class backgrounds. But they’re not. Living in a home with $60K less to work with every single year for 18 years (which is a pretty good difference between poor and middle class) puts a damper on one’s ability to even get a head in the world. $60K in scholarships (not that that’s even a realistic expectation) isn’t going to cancel out the years of different expectations, opportunities, pre-college education or free time.

  42. You know I think I would have approached this reader very differently. Guilt can have a motivating impact, when it isn’t stopping, if you know what I mean? This person is comparing himself to what society says he should be doing, and to others and not thinking about his own goals. One person I know used to have a lot of guilt. She always compared herself to others. You can always find someone in better physical shape, smarter, someone who makes more money, etc. What one should really take away from this, is to find out what you really want out of life and go after it. Don’t compare yourself to others.

    My thought on the running neighbor. Do encourage her. IF you start to exercise more, because you see her out exercising, tell her. It will make a difference. And we do all have different goals. IF her goal is to improve her running times, then no, I would not share her goals. IF her goal is to be a healthier, person, then yes, I share those goals. I do it walking outside, on my treadmill and using my stationary bike. I have lost almost 47 pounds doing it and would love encouragement from others who consider me a good role model to help them decide that it is possible.

  43. Amanda B. says:

    I never implied the playing field would be leveled. In fact, my point was that it can never be level. You can always find wats to see some advantage in someone elses life. Furthermore, just like “level” in life doesn’t exist, neither do circumstances that assure a “better” life. There are middle class kids that lead boring middle class lives and die in the same spot they are born. Some would argue that it would have been a better life had they started out poor and improved their situation. Maybe my “better life” would end with me living in a dirt floor shack helping children in Africa. The point is, neither your advantages nor the advantages of others determine the quality of your life, your mindset does. And unlike any percieved advantage, your mindset is completely within your control.

  44. imelda says:

    I agree with Skirnir, #42. This post frustrated the heck out of me, because it really touched a nerve. I am constantly riddled with guilt, as I think many women are. And to read Trent’s reaction “well, then it’s time for you to change!” was kind of a slap in the face.

    I’m hard on myself. I need to work on being less hard on myself, rather than raising my already-high standards. I would have said the same to the former-reader; he is probably being too sensitive, and expecting too much of himself. You can only be so frugal, and beyond that point it’s unreasonable to push yourself more.

    Trent, this is not one of your greatest posts, for the many reasons indicated by the commenters.

  45. Sarah says:

    I had knee pain when I first started running. I went to a specialty running store (a doctor also would work), got shoes with proper support for my arches, and then ramped up very very slowly. So far my max mileage has been 13 miles, and my knees don’t bother me at all.

    I’m not saying SOME people really don’t have medical issues that prevent them from running, but it is very common to find new aches and pains that can be fairly easily remedied. Some people will never (want to or be able to withstand) long distances, but I really think most people can complete a 5k.

    (I had the same issue with hiking long distances, fixed with insoles)

  46. Des says:

    I know I’m late to this party, but rather than saying that the services provided to the underprivileged are “advantages”, might it be more accurate to call them “anti-disadvantages”? Really, those things are only in place to help those who lack, it isn’t really correct to call them advantages themselves.

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