GETTING OVER GUILT
I consider September the start of the holidays season, because that’s when the Jewish High Holidays generally are. From there there’s a slight lull until Thanksgiving, and then it’s full steam ahead into December. All of which is to say, September is the perfect time to talk about GUILT. For so many of us, guilt is one of the predominant emotions that family time and the holidays bring up. Whether you’re thinking about what to atone for because it’s Yom Kippur, or you’re stressed out that your parents want you to travel home for Thanksgiving when it’s expensive and inconvenient, feelings of guilt can be a serious problem.
So what is guilt, anyway? I define guilt as the sense of being morally wrong for having done something, failed to do something, thought something, failed to think something, etc. As a physical emotion, guilt tends to be experienced as a heaviness, a sinking feeling, especially in the chest and stomach.
Evolutionary psychologists argue that guilt solves an important social function because it helps create social cohesion and makes people responsible for their commitments. If we feel guilty when we do something other people don’t like, we’re more likely to act for the good of the collective—or at least that’s the theory.
This may be true for tribes of primates, but for many modern women, guilt has metastasized out of control. So many of us feel guilty on a daily basis—if not many times a day—for everything from our workload, to our food choices, to our parenting, to our email response time, to the cleanliness of our floors. And that’s not to mention other people’s feelings, for which many of us feel consuming guilt and responsibility all the time.
The problem with guilt is that it spreads far beyond what is actually required to keep society functioning. There is no infraction so small (or imagined) that we won’t feel guilty about it. Guilt and perfectionism create a particularly toxic brew. As a perfectionist, you first pick an unrealistic goal—work out 7 days a week all the time, never yell at your kids, always get positive feedback at work. You may not even be aware you have this goal, it may just be a background belief in your subconscious. Then when you don’t meet it, which is guaranteed to happen because it’s unrealistic, you feel guilty about it. You feel you have done something morally wrong by not meeting your own unrealistic standards—even though you made them up!
So the arbitrariness of guilt is one big problem with the theory that it’s useful. If we’re inventing reasons to feel guilty, and feeling guilty about things that really have no moral status, how does that serve us?
The other big problem with guilt is that it’s totally counter-productive. Maybe if you’re a hunter-gatherer who shares your find with the rest of the tribe because you’d feel guilty if you didn’t, you’re doing something useful for others. But these days guilt doesn’t produce very good results.
Let’s take the example of guilt over not working. I was coaching a client recently who felt guilty because she hadn’t done any work over the weekend. (Let’s be honest, I’ve coached probably 10 clients on that this week alone). Here’s what happens if you feel guilty about not working over the weekend: You still don’t really work. If you listen to that guilt, you sit at your computer shuffling things around and checking Facebook, because you still don’t actually want to work. Guilt forces you to go through the motions, but it doesn’t help you accomplish much. And in fact it’s the worst of both worlds, because it makes you pretend to work, which neither gets much done, nor is relaxing or rejuvenating. So in the end you don’t accomplish much AND you don’t rest and reset to go back to work ready to be productive again after a break.
Or take another example: Your parents want you to come home for the holidays for a week. You know that you will feel better if you only go for 3 days, because that’s how long your family can get along without everyone starting to lose their shit. But you feel guilty, because your thought is something like: “My parents really want me to be there, and they’ll be disappointed in me if I don’t stay the whole time.” So you agree to go for the whole 7 days, and you’re resentful and irritated the whole time. Now why did your parents even want you there? Because they want to connect to you and foster your relationship with them. But when you act out of guilt and resentment about your guilt, you actually don’t connect with them at all. Three days you chose to spend where you owned that choice would produce way better results for the relationship than your being resentful and them being annoyed that you’re resentful.
Now the truth is you can’t control anyone else’s thoughts. You can’t make your parents see that 3 days is better than 7. All you can change is your own mindset. You can learn how to feel entitled to make your own decisions based on your own interests, preferences, and needs. And you can learn what I think is the most important skill: How to act from generosity instead of guilt. Because really, you always have a choice. Your boss can’t literally MAKE you work on the weekend. Your parents can’t literally MAKE you come home for a week. You are CHOOSING to do these things because you’d rather do them than feel guilty. Simply recognizing that you are making a choice is the difference between telling yourself you’re a victim and recognizing you have agency.
If you learn how to change your thought process around guilt and obligation, you win twice over. You stop doing as many things you don’t want to do, and you give yourself 100% when you do choose to devote time, energy, or money to something.