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Inspiration, Thoughts

The Happiness Paradox: Guilt vs Inspiration

I have so many things that I want to do that they get bottlenecked, and instead of dedicating myself to one or two in a reasonable way, I do a little of everything, get overwhelmed, and finish nothing. On the other hand, I often dedicate myself to something completely for an intense, short period of time – and then feel incredibly discouraged when I don’t make as much progress as I think I should have.

I’m struggling to learn a balance between the things I need to put a lot of effort into for a short period of time – like step-oriented projects with feasible, time-specific goals – and things I have to do only a little bit, but every single day – like yoga, or learning another language. 

Getting these two categories mixed is what fuels all my self-doubt, insecurity, discouragement, and occasionally crippling anxiety. Getting it right, though, has yielded some wonderful results. Took me 30 minutes of yoga a day, carefully holding my enthusiasm back and forcing myself to put in the time by turns, for months, to finally be able to easily walk my feet to my toes from a Downward Dog without bending my legs. Trumpets should have sounded to match my glee – instead, my confidence in myself just grew a little. When I finished my book after five months, during four of which I woke up at 5 before work and wrote 2,000 words, every single day, and during one of which I wrote nothing and struggled to pull my self out of intense writer’s block – fireworks should’ve gone off. Instead I just saved for the umpteenth time and sort of looked around and wondered, Well, now what?

Most of the time that doesn’t happen though. Most of the time I have a huge mound of ideas, and I find excuses for why it isn’t the right time, or I take something I am really inspired and passionate about, and I put something I don’t want to do in front of it. Work before play. You want to write another novel, this time a sci-fi narco psychological thriller? Well, you’re going to have to wait until after you’ve graduated, because there just isn’t that much time in a day and homework is your priority. You want to make up a dance routine to this song, right now, because it’s just so damn awesome? Clean the room first, and go buy groceries, and put in some laundry, and then you can do it.

And all those things I’m ‘supposed’ to be doing get done – but the things I really want, the things that both make me feel the most accomplished and others see as the largest accomplishments, don’t get touched.

It’s been a full year and a half since I wrote the first 10,000 words to that sci-fi narco story, and it hasn’t been touched since. I have a drum set packed away ‘until I find a better place for it,’ even though I think about playing every single day. I have a list of books I want to read and a list of photography adventures I want to go on, but I have responsibilities instead. And there’ll be time when I’m done. Except, there never is.

The thing holding me back, that always stomps on my inspiration and confidence, is guilt. Reading for pleasure makes me feel guilty, if my room isn’t clean. Making up a dance routine makes me feel guilty, if I’m not doing it to perform for something. Writing another book makes me feel guilty, because it is such a huge commitment of time and effort, and imagine how good your German would be if you spent that time and effort trying to do that instead?

And you know what ends up happening? I don’t learn that much German because I’m forcing myself to. I keep the room clean and I feel like there’s an itch somewhere deep that never gets scratched, all the time. The restlessness never abates. Now there is new guilt – guilt from not beginning all these projects I think about and talk about all the time. Somewhere deep, my confidence shrinks. And the restlessness begins to turn to listlessness and resignation, and the clock keeps ticking, ticking, ticking.

I’m about to start a 9-6 job, with an hour lunch break. I am leasing my time, which I never have enough of as it is, to someone else. In return, I get independence. Oh, the horrible irony. I have the luxury of having a job during which I get to do things I enjoy and want to do anyway, but I can understand a little now about why people have mid-life crises. Or why I’ve so often heard things like, “I didn’t think my life would turn out this way.” I always thought, If you don’t like your life, then why don’t you change it? But now I’m beginning to understand it isn’t that easy.


The thing with working for someone, or working for yourself, is that it gives you an excuse to do whatever you’re doing. It rids you of guilt. Getting paid for what you do is enough justification, in anyone’s eyes (except in extreme cases like hit men, though they could probably use the ‘just trying to feed the family’ argument too), to alleviate all guilt. And fun things, things that you want to do, are never things that you should do, and they require either an excuse or an acknowledgement of guilt simply because you want to do them.

But what if… you give yourself permission to do what you want to do?

Creating this blog was sort of a step in that direction. A blog is one of those small, constant things, and it gives me an excuse to create. ‘Oh, I have to do this for my blog.’ ‘Yeah, it’s for my blog.’ Now my little ideas and projects have purpose, permission, and are, mostly, guilt free. Sometimes the boyfriend calls this ‘my expensive toy’ – and suddenly all of this needs an excuse, suddenly I am guilty of wasting my time.

I am the one imposing these limits on myself. I am the one making excuses not to begin. I am the one that needs to change my priorities from doing what I think I should, to doing what makes me happy, settled, content. I am the one that needs to learn to live without guilt.

I think this is especially important when there isn’t so much time in the day, because it forces me to acknowledge that there isn’t much time in life, and if I want to have what I want to have, then I need to start working for it now.

And if I want to be happy, then I need to start working towards what makes me happy now. 

And maybe this fear, this bottlenecking, this inability to get anything done, let alone the things you want to do, will start to solve itself. I’d be much happier cleaning and grocery shopping and doing laundry if I did it after I’ve fed my soul a little, indulged in my creativity a little – if I wasn’t doing it as an obligation to free me from guilt. Maybe then, nothing will feel like an obligation any more. And maybe I won’t ever feel like I’ve wasted time.

Play before work because happiness is always the priority. After happiness, all else follows. And I don’t meant play as a disguise for procrastination – the of-the-moment impulsive wants that lead to Netflix binges and hours on Buzzfeed. I mean the kind of play that means waking up at 5am and going for a run, or cleaning your room so you don’t have that cloud hanging over your head, or writing 2000 words a day, or actually going to see your friends and playing volleyball at the park.

Give yourself permission to play. We only have one life.

And maybe I’ll actually be able to retain some German. Ich habe in Deutschland für fast zwei Jahren zusammen gewohnt und ich bin immer noch verwirrt!

James McAvoy in one of the best movies ever made, 'Atonement.'

James McAvoy in one of the best movies ever made, ‘Atonement.’


2 thoughts on “The Happiness Paradox: Guilt vs Inspiration

  1. Ha! I sooo have this problem – ‘too much to do, too little time to do it!’ I also squeeze in writing before and after work (have you got a family? I can tell you that make it even harder! 🙂 )
    I have an idea I’m going to try. You know how many subjects you used to learn at school? An hour on each one at the time? Well, first I’m going to list everything I want to do (all the different house-work jobs I’ll count as one). Then I’m going to make myself a two-week timetable, and make sure I have all the things I want to do timetabled in, so I know that I will give everything a turn in the two weeks. I think I’ll do, like an hour of writing every day (even if it’s half hour before work, and half hour after), and an hour of cleaning/cooking each day. But will also slip one hour of something else I want to do in every evening/on the weekend. See how that works.
    By the way, have you tried Duolingo? It’s brilliant for doing just a single lesson or two each day, and building up your vocab and fluency!! My daughter does a bit every day, and she’s become quite fluent in about 4 languages (I think she does French, Spanish, Italian but stopped doing German since she wasn’t enjoying it so much).
    Anyway, good to read this post – I completely empathised! 🙂
    – Annelisa

  2. Shaila says:

    I felt like I was reading my life written by you!

    True story: I went to a distant relative’s house on my husband’s side. The elderly father-in-law of this relative (so even further removed from me) stared at me and made me uncomfortable. I tried avoiding him all night, but he finally cornered me and told me that he could see how I struggled with too many interests. (What?!) I hadn’t spoken much at all to anyone, so it’s not like he overheard a conversation. But his advice blew me away and made me feel guilty for avoiding him all night. He told me to concentrate on two things and do them with my whole heart.

    I can’t say I immediately followed his advice, but where my life is *now* –almost 15 yrs later — is right where I’d be if I had conciously followed his advice.

    Who knows?

    Here’s an unknown quote stuck up by my computer:

    “Never give up on a dream just because of the time it will take to accomplish it. The time will pass anyway.”

    Good luck to you 🙂

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