Taking Out the Trash: To clear your conscience, understand the baggage you carry.

While driving home a couple weeks back, listening to my favorite talk radio show, I discovered something important about myself which I had previously been happily unaware—I am, it occurred to me, completely overloaded with guilt.

The hosts were talking about their various nervous ticks. One guy said he had a habit of pacing back and forth, while another, like me, admitted to being a leg-bouncer. You know the leg-bouncer, the guy who constantly pumps his leg up and down while he’s sitting at his desk or at the dinner table. It’s annoying to other people, but I never even realize I’m doing it. Eventually, the leg-bouncing host said he had heard this was a symptom of some underlying guilt in his life.

What do I have to feel guilty for—no idea, really. Nobody’s perfect, and like everyone, I’ve made some missteps along the way I’d certainly like to have back. But I never thought this stuff was so present in my subconscious.

Not long thereafter, in an editorial meeting at the SUCCESS office, we were discussing ideas for an online April Fool’s gag. Before settling on the just-for-grins re-branding as meh… magazine, we toyed with the idea of going with FAILURE. A little too obvious and wicked, no? That’s why we didn’t pick it. Anyway, right after “36 Reasons You Absolutely Should NOT Open a Business,” one joke headline thrown out there was “Trash Talk Yourself, You Slob.”

I wondered if that’s what I’ve been doing to myself all these years—talking trash to myself for mistakes and shortcomings rather than letting go and moving forward with optimism. I don’t think of myself as an unhappy person, but I asked whether I could be happier. Of course I could.

Around that time, all the SUCCESS editors were emailed a press release about a new book for business leaders, HeadTrash: Cleaning out the Junk that Stands Between You and Success. Now that my guilt was a part of my conscious, and not hiding under the surface, I was intrigued. So, I took their 28-question “HeadTrash Index” to try to confirm my interior diagnosis. The questionnaire suggests a range of self-limiting thoughts that you answer by their severity and frequency. For example, “I re-live past experiences about which I feel badly”—well, Not Usually—or “Even after being assured that all is well, I continue to worry that it is not,”—OK, Usually—and “I regularly cut off people during conversations,”—umm, Sometimes.

As it turned out, my “HeadTrash Cocktail” didn’t include a significant amount of guilt, and I also have a relatively low amount of paranoia, insecurity, arrogance and anger. My biggest internal obstacles, the quiz revealed, are fear and the need for control. The website does a fine job explaining these evolutionary roots of these thought, which suggests the reasons they are fallacy.

Even better, I’m armed with an understanding of my real hang-ups, which equips me to tackle them. So, no more micro-managing, if it can be avoided… and I know not to hold back on speaking up or making decisions just because of minor worries. Best of all, I’m not feeling guilty about things I didn’t think I felt guilty about until a couple weeks ago. I’m free to just be.

The next time I notice my leg going crazy, I’ll know to take a deep breath and relax. There’s no saber-tooth poised to attack me at my desk… or is there?

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