If you want to be more self-disciplined and feel less guilty, you need to learn to manage your thinking patterns and emotions. Here are 6 guilt-reducing skills and 5 self-discipline building strategies to help you do that.

My Habitology members and I are studying self discipline this month and I figured that it would be useful to talk about guilt as part of that.

That was Podcast #68 – Cultivating Self Discipline and Self Regulation. You may want to go back and listen to that first.

Here’s a quick recap – self-discipline is defined as resisting an urge in the moment.

It’s resisting the urge to eat the doughnut you just got a whiff of. It’s resisting the urge to skip your exercise session.

Thinking of these examples, it’s easy to see how someone might make themselves feel guilty at giving in to an urge.

I see this a lot in my coaching clients.

And I think there could be two main reasons people beat themselves up and feel guilty about such lapses.

Firstly, we have trained ourselves to punish failure rather than learn from it.

Secondly, many of us have high expectations for ourselves, and subsequently a sense of guilt if we are not able to live up to those expectations. In other words, our rational minds tell us that we ‘should’ be able to do something, and therefore, we are somehow not good enough or a failure if we don’t do it.

So let’s have this important conversation about understanding guilt, so that we can create self-discipline without guilt.

What is Guilt?

Guilt is a feeling you create in your own mind, with your own thought patterns, when you do something that is not aligned with your values. 

It’s really important to recognise that you create guilt with your own thoughts and therefore, you can also get rid of guilt with your own thoughts too.

Guilt is the sense that you have done something bad, or wrong, against someone else or against your own moral code.

And while guilt is designed to help us act with integrity, in line with our moral compass. But many of us take it too far, to our own detriment.

Here’s an example. 

Let’s say that you planned to go to the gym three times this week and you wanted to be really self disciplined about that. But something got in the way and you are only able to do one of those three exercise sessions. 

Would you admonish yourself and make yourself feel guilty?

Would you become self-critical?

Would you challenge your own capacity to take action, or your worthiness?

If you answer yes to these types of questions, you may be an overly guilty person. Notice that it is your own thought patterns that create that unnecessary guilt.

There are two things I want to say about guilt.

Firstly, guilt cannot change the past. Once you have said or done something – or not said or done them – you can’t take it back. It’s over. It’s gone.

Secondly, guilt doesn’t make you feel good. Guilt is not an enjoyable motivator, and it may decrease your self-discipline in the long term. That’s because negative self talk weakens your resolve, self-confidence, motivation and self-belief over time, so it ends up being counter-productive.

What I want to offer is that guilt is unhelpful most of the time, and it can sabotage your attempts to build self discipline.

How to Be Guilt-Free and Self-Disciplined 

If you agree that guilt can be detrimental to your self esteem and goals, then let’s talk about how to be guilt-free AND self-disciplined at the same time.

Both of these things require you to manage your thoughts and feelings, so the primary skills you need to learn to be guilt-free and self-disciplined are managing your thinking patterns, feelings and actions.

You could think of learning to be guilt-free and learning to be self-disciplined as much like driving a car, or playing the piano, or any other skill you could be learning.

They take time, patience and practice.

Let’s start with the skills of being guilt-free.

The Skills of Being Guilt-Free

We must first recognise that guilt is an emotion that keeps you in check with your values, morals and ethics.

When I am talking about being guilt-free, I am specifically talking about excessive, unhelpful guilt that sabotages your ability to change.

There are some character skills you can learn to become guilt-free, which I will touch on briefly now.

Guilt cannot change the past. Once you have said or done something – or not said or done them – you can’t take it back. It’s over. It’s gone.

When I am talking about being guilt-free, I am specifically talking about excessive, unhelpful guilt that sabotages your ability to change.

There are some character skills you can learn to become guilt-free, which I will touch on briefly now.

The way to develop these skills is to pick one to start with and practice it as often as possible. 

That means making time in your week to do some thinking about the skill, or writing about it, or speaking to a coach about it.

Here are six skills that I think will help you to stop feeling so guilty all the time.

  1. Empathy – for yourself as someone learning how to do something differently.
  2. Self-awareness – of what you did, or your behaviour patterns.
  3. Mindfulness – of how you felt in that moment, in your body and mind.
  4. Reflection – on how you interpreted and responded to those mind and body sensations.
  5. Self-compassion – to accept without judgement and move on from any slip ups. 
  6. Decision making – for getting clear on what to do next.

Now, here are the steps you can take to help you be self-disciplined.

The Steps (and Skills) to Developing Self-Discipline

Here are the key things you need to do so that you can develop self-discipline.

1. Define realistic standards

Firstly you need to decide on some realistic standards for the area you’re trying to change. 

For example, it’s no use committing a standard of five x 1 hour sessions of exercise each week if you can only realistically fit in three.

Having unrealistic standards or expectations is a recipe for failure, and subsequently, guilt.

So you’ll have to do some learning about what can fit into your life style realistically.

As a coach, I often notice this is hard for a lot of people to do. It feels more logical or perhaps easier to set a goal around taking action, but looking at the big picture of what’s actually possible is the most important thing that will increase your chance of successfully achieving what you set out to achieve.

You might look at setting standards for yourself at the start of every year, or perhaps every six months. 

It may help you to think of these standards as behavioural goals – that is – to define the thinking or doing habits you would like to be doing regularly.

2. Discover what motivates you

When you know what motivates you, you will more likely succeed at taking action. 

For example, even if you have the time, you may not feel motivated to go to the gym in the moment. 

But if you are really clear on how good you will feel when you are 20% stronger, or 5kg lighter, those images will help you to get there and do a workout regardless of how you feel.

3. Use your strengths

All of us have character strengths – that is, things we are good at and enjoy doing or being.

When you know what your strengths are, you can use them to help you to maintain self-discipline. 

For example, if you’re a great planner, then you’ll probably find it easy to choose exercise timeslots where you are most likely to be energised for going to the gym.

Or, if honesty is one of your strengths, then being very honest with yourself about the doughnut, the gym or working too late will probably help you to make a healthier choice that you feel good about.

4. Learning to say no (or yes)

There’s another skill that most people need to learn when it comes to self discipline. And that is the skill of saying no. 

We all have responsibilities in our lives – to ourselves and to other people. And the skill of saying no as an important part of that.

Consider this. Let’s say it’s a Tuesday afternoon and as you’re finishing work, your mum phones and asks you over for a cup of tea because she hasn’t seen you in a while – in the exact time slot that you are planning to go to the gym. 

What do you do? 

Who do you say no to? 

Yourself or your mum?

A lot of people feel guilty about letting other people down and that is greater guilt than what they may feel around not doing their own personal habit.

Having your standards in place (point 1) will help you to make decisions at times like these.

So will planning.

If you have a clear plan in place and Plan B, C and even a Plan D to do your exercise, it may be easier to make allowances around other people.

Alternatively, you can stick with your original plan and let your mum know you will show up at another time – and book that in with her so she knows it’s important to you.

5. Learning, not failing

Finally, it’s important to get rid of the idea of failing – or at least, that it is a bad thing. Every time something doesn‘t go to plan, there is a lesson to be learned.

When you have the emotional skills you need to get rid of unnecessary guilt, it will be easier to step back and see the facts, problem solve and discover the valuable lessons that failure has given you, so you can do things differently next time.

Summary

Self-discipline is the act of being able to resist urges, but for a lot of people there is often guilt attached.

If you want to be more self-disciplined and feel less guilty, you need to learn to manage your thinking patterns and emotions.

There are six skills you can learn to reduce guilt and start being kinder to yourself.

Every time something doesn‘t go to plan, there is a lesson to be learned.

And, there are five steps and skills you can learn to develop more self-discipline.

As you can tell, it’s helpful to work with a coach on these things in tandem, so you can get the empathy and professional support and accountability you need to develop your own self-accountability, confidence and success.

If you would like to find out about working with a coach, visit www.melaniejwhite.com and visit my contact page. Shoot me an email to enquire about coaching.

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