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.