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Feeling Guilt Increases Our Subjective Body Weight

How guilt makes us feel weighed down and burdened

We often refer to guilty feelings as being “laden” and to the feeling we get when we resolve them as, “a weight lifted off our shoulders.” New research now demonstrates that such metaphors are grounded in actual physical experience. In other words, carrying around guilty feelings actually makes us feel heavier.

Unresolved or excessive guilt is, in essence, a form of ‘psychological injury’, in that it impacts our short-term psychological functioning. Guilty feelings are incredibly distracting; they make it difficult for us to focus on our work and on the basic duties of our lives. They also prevent us from enjoying our lives and experiencing the full range of happiness and satisfaction we could and should. Further, guilt can also induce us to self-punishment in both conscious and unconscious ways. Considering how guilt impacts us, it is no wonder we experience guilty feelings as burdensome and as weighing us down.

Unfortunately, we tend to respond to unresolved or excessive guilt as we do to other common psychological injuries such as rejection, failure, or loneliness—we simply ‘take it’. Rarely do we take steps to treat the emotional wounds we’ve sustained, both because we’re unaware of how to do so, and because we fail to recognize the full extent of their impact on our emotions, mood, thinking, and behavior.

Now, a series of new studies has demonstrated yet another price we might pay for leaving our guilty feelings untreated. Grounded in the science of embodied cognition (a field of psychology that studies how our physical bodies impact thoughts, emotions, and perceptions), researchers demonstrated how guilt affects our subjective estimations of bodily weight and how this effect can impact our future behavior.

Participants were divided into two groups. One group was asked to recall and describe a time where they acted ethically and the other, a time they acted unethically. They were then informed that people’s weight can have fluctuations, and asked to estimate their current weight compared to their ‘usual’ weight. Participants who recalled acting unethically estimated their current weight compared to their normal weight as significantly greater than those in the ethical memory group.

Since the resolution of guilt sometimes includes acts of reparation, researchers did a follow-up study with a similar set-up (two groups were asked to recall memories of ethical and unethical behavior). But this time they also asked participants to assess how much physical effort it would require to do one of three pro-social acts; carrying groceries or laundry upstairs for someone, and helping someone move. Participants who felt guilty (after recalling unethical behavior) judged the three tasks as requiring substantially more effort than those who were not ‘weighed down’ by guilt.

The findings indicate yet another way unresolved guilt can impact us on an unconscious level. Feeling weighed down and perceiving physical tasks as being overly effortful might undermine our sense of initiative and make us even less likely to take the very kind of proactive and reparatory steps that could absolve us of our guilty consciences.

The bottom line is that we should not ignore unresolved or excessive guilt. We have to fight the heaviness, passivity, and helplessness they can induce and take initiative to resolve the issues that are making us feel bad about ourselves and our actions.

View my short and quite personal TEDx talk about Psychological Health here:

For more about the different kinds of guilt we feel and how to resolve them, check out, Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013).

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Copyright 2013 Guy Winch

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Reference: Martin, M. Day., & D. Ramona, Eobocel, The weight of guilty conscience: Subjective body weight as an embodiment of guilt. PLoS One, 2013 (8 (7): e69546

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