“I live in a world of ‘shoulds.’ Whatever I am doing, I feel like I should be doing more. Like most women, I rarely do one thing at a time . . . I actually worry if I am not feeling guilty, because I know I have forgotten something.” Guiltily Yours, A Reader
One time a friend and I were sitting in a talk by Dr. Harriet Lerner, an internationally acclaimed expert on women’s psychology. As Dr. Lerner said, “Our society cultivates a garden of guilt in women,” my friend leaned over and whispered, “Mine’s more like a forest!”
Indeed, we are surrounded by opportunities for guilt daily: Did we floss? Did we exercise? Did we recycle? Did we allow sugar or aspartame into our body? Did we spend enough time with the kids? Was it quality time?
If we’re mothers we may feel guilty for working outside of our homes. Or we may feel guilty if we are working, but haven’t “achieved enough.” As far as the guilt free life, most of us never arrive. The “good enough” inventory runs endlessly on.
Did we call our parents? Did we lose our temper? Did we gain weight? Is the house a mess? We can even feel guilty for not having enough fun!
Women! It’s time to say enough already! It’s time to take back our power from the never ending cultural shoulds! Whether it’s our family culture (past and present), community culture or the media created culture, we can challenge those messages. We can claim our own values and standards. And while we’re at it we can cut ourselves some slack! Enough already!
I asked women to write to me and tell me about their guilt when I worked as a magazine columnist. Over 150 letters poured in reporting the myriad ways we women guilt ourselves. One stood out because of her success in claiming her right to design the life she wanted without apology.
“I was in high school during a peak of aggressive feminism.” The author wrote: I was an excellent student and my plans to get a Ph.D. in physics were supported by my family and teachers. In college however, I found myself increasingly stressed out and disillusioned by academic life.
“I was shocked to find myself yearning for a calmer, more serene, domestic lifestyle. When I got engaged, I decided to try housewifery, as it seemed more suited to my temperament. The women with whom I worked and studied were overwhelmingly unsupportive of my decision.” She spent a lot of time “fretting over their condemnations and feeling guilty for not doing ‘The Right Thing for Women Everywhere.’”
Finally she came to this conclusion: “I am the only person who knows what is right for me . . . If other people have a problem with my life it’s their problem to solve, never mine. Other people’s expectations belong to them. I no longer accept them. The energy I once funneled into guilt and angst now goes into serenity and happiness, where it belongs.”
Most of the women I have known have struggled with guilt on some level. Combine culture and our own unique neurology and we may find ourselves wanting to please, avoid conflict, or make others happy. We can easily fall prey to an over-focus on the well-being of others at our expense.
As one friend of mine once joked, “Show me a woman who doesn’t feel guilt and I’ll show you a man!”
A friend of mine, with a large family, experienced a tragic event, where this difference in tendencies played out. While loading their van for a camping trip, the toddler in the family wandered out into the street and was hit by a car. The driver did not stop.
As the mother rode to the hospital in the ambulance with her child the litany began. “What kind of mother am I? How did I let her get out of my sight?”
The men on the other hand, moved to anger. “What kind of person does this?” they asked. They talked of finding the driver, and making sure justice was served.
Fortunately the child came through with minor injuries, the mother was guilt-ridden indefinitely.
There are times when guilt has a legitimate purpose – when we have done something that is a serious violation of our values. That kind of guilt gives us an emotionally painful signal that we have strayed from our character. The solution is to address the error, make amends, learn the lessons, and move on.
The majority of guilt we experience though is a sort of inner chiding that actually harms our relationship with ourselves and others. That guilt leads to saying yes to activities and commitments of our time that we later regret and resent.
We can move toward eliminating that type of guilt by continually defining our own priorities and preferences. We can say no to choices and demands that fall outside of those. We can challenge the messages we are giving ourselves that base our worth on appearance and performance. Those messages can be replaced with acceptance. We can take time for stillness, moving below the self-nagging to access our true voice. And we can embrace our humanity and relax our standards.
Harriet Lerner, reminded me rather casually at the end of our conversation, “You know Tamera, no one ever died from guilt. It doesn’t have to stop us. We can say no and feel guilty. And the next time we say no, we’ll have a little less guilt.”
Next week we will continue this discussion on guilt and explore some ways we can move from guilt to concrete action that supports real change and healthy relationships. In the meantime I would love to hear your comments about your experience and thoughts about guilt in the comment section.