Making Guilt Work For You

Making Guilt Work For You

Guilt. It's supposed to be a helpful emotion, an internal compass of sorts, guiding you toward making decisions more in line with your ethics. But what happens when it goes awry? Many of the women I see in my practice complain of feeling almost constantly guilty. Guilt over not spending enough time with the kids, not being there for their significant others in the way they want, for not cooking enough, cleaning enough, staying late enough at work. Guilt for not calling their parents, or visiting their aging grandparents. Guilt for not exercising enough, or not eating in a healthy way. And instead of being guided toward better decisions, their internal compass has them spinning in circles. 

Guilt is defined as "a cognitive or an emotional experience that occurs when a person realizes (accurately or not) that they have compromised their own standards." So when a person comes to me, begging for relief from the exhaustion or anxiety they are feeling along with their guilt, we are left with two choices. 1) Stop feeling guilty (ah, for it to be that easy!) or 2) Examine and adjust the standards they are holding themselves to. 

In the past, I have written at length about perfectionism- how holding unrealistic standards for yourself often leads to success before bottoming out into anxiety, depression, or low self worth. Guilt is the annoying cousin of perfectionism. Instead of telling you outright "You must do this", guilt waits until bedtime and then whispers in your ear "You still haven't done this?" Often times we conquer perfectionism, learning to be kinder to ourselves. But then guilt sneaks in, causing us to question our new ways. 

So how to ship this annoying little cousin back home? It begins with clearly defining your priorities. While it would be nice to do it all, it isn't possible. So grab your journal, and get to work on the following activities. Once you're aware of your own priorities, and feel in control of your decisions, that annoying little voice will soon stop whispering in your ear. 

1. In an ideal 24 hour day, how would you break up the hours?

2. What do you want to accomplish in your career?

3. When you look back on your life, how do you want others to describe you and your accomplishments?

This isn't a one time activity. As adults, our priorities are often switching and balancing. However, you will begin to notice trends. What things keep coming up on your list? What items are surprisingly missing? Once you start to track these items, you can begin living in accordance with your true values. 

For example: You see the concept "husband" or "relationship" on many of your lists. But it's been 3 months since you've had a date night. Guilt in this area of your life has been inviting you to take notice and make a change before your relationship suffers. One way to take action is by booking a babysitter one night for the next three months and putting some fun dates on the calendar. 

Another example: You notice the word "cleaning" or "decorate" isn't coming up at all! The guilt you feel is most likely due to the fact that you believe you SHOULD care more about the state of your home. But you kind of don't. Not everyone wants to put forth the energy to live in a Pottery Barn catalogue. You decide to use those hours to do something that matters more to you, and ask others for help with the cleaning. (Or budget for a monthly housekeeping). 

Another example: You are reminded that your career goals have little to do with your current job. The guilt is highlighting how unfulfilled you are in your field. You take the time to start researching ways to expand or break into the field, including a timeline. 

The importance of these activities is to determine what your individual priorities are, and they may be very different than what we feel society tells us they should be. Just because you can balance parenthood and a career doesn't mean that it is what is important to you. Just because you can make a great salary in a particular field doesn't mean it's what makes you feel that you're fulfilling your purpose. 

At the end of the day, it's important to remember that guilt exists for a reason. It's there to remind us that something is off. We're either worrying about something that isn't important to us, or ignoring something that is. Our time and energy are flowing the wrong direction. But just like that annoying little cousin, once we pause to pay attention, it often stops being annoying and starts being helpful. Using guilt to guide us means the difference between a stressful, anxious existence and a fulfilled, peaceful one. 

Perfect Vs. Good Enough- The Trap of Perfectionism (Part 3)

Perfect Vs. Good Enough- The Trap of Perfectionism (Part 3)

Part 3: “Okay, Okay, Perfectionism is Dangerous- Now What Do I Do to Fix It?”

Hopefully by now you’ve read Parts 1 & 2 of our special on perfectionism. It probably felt great to diagnose yourself, get scared of the statistics, and then have to wait to see what you can do about it. Sorry about that!

Perfectionism is difficult to treat for a variety of reasons. First, it appears to “work” for you. And it can be scary to get rid of something that seems to work, even if it’s painful. Many perfectionists worry that changing their ways will suddenly leave them jobless and homeless, alone under a bridge. The good news is that re-tuning your meter from “perfect” to “great” or “good enough” will probably still put you light years ahead of mere mortals.

Second, perfectionism (like many coping skills) has become a friend, or a way to define yourself. It’s similar to staying in a bad relationship. While it doesn’t always feel good, it feels familiar, and easy. And working hard at a bad relationship seems easier than starting over in a new. You wonder who you’ll be without this pal by your side.

Finally, perfectionism is a habit. And when we’re busy, tired, or distracted, we fall back into old habits. It requires awareness and attention to challenge our habits.

The good news is that perfectionists aren’t afraid of a little hard work or persistence. Come on, prove to us that you can do it! (Will it help if I give you an award you can hang up in your office when you’re done?)

Reforming perfectionism is a practice like all others. Imagine the first time you took a yoga class. It felt totally unnatural to stand in a triangle with your face towards your feet. Everyone else seemed to know what “Happy baby” or “Savasana” meant. But after a few classes, it started to feel more natural and less scary. In fact, you may have started to enjoy it! Eliminating perfectionism is a similar process.


Step 1: Tune in to your thoughts.

  • Start with a journal, or even your calendar. Any time you feel a negative emotion related to your own performance, jot it down, along with the words you’re saying to yourself. You will soon notice a trend.

  • Column 1, Emotions: You may feel pressure, anxiety, anger, sadness, or stress.

  • Column 2, Thoughts: This is your self-talk related to the emotion. You may see a lot of “should's” or “must's”. “I should have finished this by now.” “I must do better than my coworkers.” “I’m not good enough.” “I can’t make a mistake.”


Step 2: Talk back to your thoughts.

  • Put a third column next to those emotions and thoughts- and challenge them in a way you imagine your nicest grandma would say to you. (Or if you don’t have a nice grandma, imagine Mrs. Doubtfire).

  • “I’ll never be good enough” becomes “You’re a hard worker and a good friend.”

  • ”I can’t make a mistake” becomes “Everyone makes mistakes sometimes.”

  • ”I don’t know what I’m doing” becomes “You have a lot of experience, just give it a try.”

  • ”I look like a mess” becomes “You look like a happy mom”.


Step 3: Begin the process in real life.

  • Eventually this process will seem less clunky. Instead of walking around with three columns, you’ll begin to catch your negative self-talk and turn it around quicker.

  • For example, When you think, “I’m scared, I can’t give this speech!” your internal Mrs Doubtfire will say, “You know what you’re talking about. You’re prepared. Just give it a shot!”


No, a 3 step process will not immediately fix your life. But the difference between walking around with a judgemental headmistress in your head and a kind, understanding grandmother makes a huge difference in the way you feel about yourself and go about your world. At its heart, perfectionism is about feeling good enough. And as your internal voice becomes kinder and more realistic, your actions and your experiences will begin to change as well.


So give it a try! This week, begin to write down those three things:

  1. My negative emotion

  2. What negative things I am saying to myself

  3. Challenge that negative thought by writing a kinder, more understanding response


“You have to know that you are good enough and worth it. Once you master that belief in yourself, no one else can steal it from you.” Alex Elle


Perfect Vs. Good Enough- The Trap of Perfectionism (Part 2)

Perfect Vs. Good Enough- The Trap of Perfectionism (Part 2)

Part 2: “Fine, I’m a Perfectionist- Why Is That a Bad Thing?”

If you've read Part 1 and have stuck around, you most likely have identified yourself as a perfectionist. But you may be wondering "What's the big deal?" The biggest challenge with reforming perfectionists is this- they believe it’s working for them. On the surface, perfectionists tend to have it all. They often have good, high paying jobs. Their houses look finished, yet cozy. They dress nicely and are rarely seen without their hair and makeup looking polished. By all accounts, they look like they have this life thing figured out.

Unfortunately, there’s often chaos brewing below the surface. Most perfectionists experience increased rates of stress, anxiety, depression, or eating disorders. It can be an isolating cycle- to appear on the surface to have it together, feel fear/inadequacy below, yet not want anyone to know you feel that way.

The general belief in America is that perfectionism is adaptive- intelligent, hardworking individuals learn perfectionism as a way to excel in our democratic society. In truth, it is a coping mechanism at it’s core. We often find that adults (in particular, women) adopt perfectionistic tendencies as a way to quell their anxiety, feel control in out-of-control situations, and to reassure themselves of their worth. And like many coping mechanisms, it works. Until it doesn’t.

Those early 20’s perfectionists (Picture Reese Witherspoon in Election) turn into 30 somethings fighting burn out. As they add a serious relationship, marriage, mortgage, and maybe kids to the mix, it becomes harder and harder to live up to their own expectations. They take one of two roads. The first is that they plow forward, trying to stay perfect in all areas of their lives as they take on more responsibilities. Self-care, sleep, and hobbies are the first to go. Relationships and friendships are the next. Finally, the dreaded burnout occurs at work and they acknowledge there is a problem.

The second road happens more quickly. A perfectionist hits a bump in the road that they aren’t able to pave over in gold. A marriage fails. A career stumbles. They get into debt. A healthy person would see these as things to grieve and move past. A perfectionist takes it as a sign that they are secretly a failure. A loser playing the part of a winner. They begin to cope in other ways- avoiding challenging tasks, isolating themselves, freezing in making any decisions. Finally, anxiety or sadness becomes unbearable and at last, they reach out for help.

The good news is that there is help, there are ways to balance achievement and self-care. Maybe you’re reading this article and realize that you’re heading down a dangerous path, but you’re only at it’s early stages. Or you see yourself in one of those two paths, but have finally realized that YOU ARE NOT ALONE. You see that what once kept you successful and safe is now hurting you. Perfectionism has become an abusive partner and it’s time to kick it to the curb.

So what to do about it? How do we reform former perfectionists? It’s a practice, like all others. It involves re-calibrating our internal gauge of “perfect” to “great” or “good enough.” We’ll cover that next time, in Part 3. Until then, remember, you’re not alone, and there is help.


Perfect Vs. Good Enough- The Trap of Perfectionism (Part 1)

Perfect Vs. Good Enough- The Trap of Perfectionism (Part 1)

Part 1: “I’m Not Perfect Enough to Be a Perfectionist”

By our 30s, many of us have learned the “correct” answer to that all-too-typical interview question, “What is your biggest weakness?”: “I’m too much of a perfectionist.”, “I try to do too much.”, “I need to learn to delegate.”. The message behind this reflects the American ideal- there is virtue in overachieving.

But when does perfectionism start to hurt instead of help you? Sooner than you’d think. Women, especially, believe in the notion that they should be doing “excellent” at everything: job, relationship, friendships, parenting- all while their house and body look put together and polished. We’ve been told since we were little that we can have it all! We can be anything we want to be! As long as we’re willing to work at it.

But the evil truth is that it isn’t possible to be excellent at everything at the same time. Repeat after me- “IT IS NOT POSSIBLE.” Or rather, it isn’t sustainable. Even the most perfect perfectionists (I see you) cannot sustain this level of achievement forever. And once these arbitrary expectations are no longer met, what follows is a downward spiral of stress, self-judgement, shame, lowered confidence, and negative self-talk. What was once an asset (you know you loved being labeled as an overachiever) has suddenly become an albatross (“I can’t screw this up”).

In Part 2 we’ll talk more about the path to perfectionism and where that road takes you. Until then, feel free to take the quiz below to see if you are part of the perfect posse.

Are You A Perfectionist in Need of Reform?

(Score 1 point for each 'Yes' answer)

  • Do you seek external reinforcement (pay raise, higher grades/ratings, praise from others)?

  • Do you prefer to finish a project yourself rather than delegate?

  • Do you prefer to have hours set aside to finish a project (rather than working in small chunks as time opens)?

  • Do you have trouble hearing criticism?

  • Do you get irritated when someone “drops by” your house when you aren’t expecting it?

  • Do you get irritated when you try something new and are not good at it immediately?

  • When you notice your house or body, do you zero in on the things that still need improvement/imperfections?

  • Do others tell you you are difficult to please?

  • Do you have much lower expectations for others versus yourself?

  • Did you think “I’m not quite perfect enough to be a perfectionist?”

If you answered “yes” to 3 or more questions, you are a Perfectionist in Need of Reform! Click here to read Part 2 of our special on Perfectionism.