There are many kinds of guilt, Catholic Guilt, Jewish Mother Guilt, Generic Parental Guilt, Couch Potato Guilt, Not Feeling Guilty Enough Guilt, and so on. Guilt is such a pervasive emotion it will likely never be on the endangered species list, and as painful as it can be, it is not something we should try to completely eradicate like small pox. Guilt serves a worthy purpose to keep us in line, however, it can also unnecessarily hold us back. As I see it, guilt can be divided into two types:
Appropriate guilt: when you’ve done something wrong (or not done something you should have) and you rightly feel regret and hopefully make amends.
Inappropriate guilt: when you feel guilty about feeling a certain way, or wanting or needing something, yet these feelings and desires are healthy and valid.
Inappropriate guilt often arises when you’re feeling conflicted about what you want to do versus what you feel you should do.
Of course there are many instances when we need to put our shoulds over our wants. We may not want to answer a page at 1 am, but we know we should, so we do.
What I often see happening with my physician clients is they feel inappropriately guilty when it comes to making their needs and wants more of a priority, and the SHOULDS win out because guilt is a very uncomfortable and PAINFUL emotion. They end up make decisions based on avoiding the feeling of guilt, and these are not necessarily the best decisions.
Common GUILTY THOUGHTS that can get in the way
“I feel guilty taking my kids to daycare on my day off.”
“I feel guilty taking a job where my income is less; my family shouldn’t have to sacrifice because I’m unhappy.”
“When I think about leaving my patients, I feel guilty.”
“If I don’t stay in medicine I feel guilty wasting my training.”
“If I work part-time, I feel guilty knowing others are working more.”
“I feel guilty wanting to do something by myself when I don’t get enough time with my family. Sometimes I wish I were single, not really but….”
“I feel guilty for wanting to be happy. Shouldn’t I just suck it up? How many people like their work anyway?”
Guilt is tricky. It’s good we can feel the emotion of guilt, so we have some starch to go with our moral compass. But too often we set unreasonable expectations, putting ourselves at risk for rubber-stamping “Guilty” on our psyche like a bored government worker. We don’t take the time to really understand why the charge of guilty. The gavel comes down and Bam! We’re Guilty! Case closed. No further discussion.
We keep doing what guilt tells us we should be doing, all the while building up resentment and frustration. Nothing really changes except change seems even harder.
Q – What is the way out of inappropriate guilt?
A – Take the time to understand what’s underneath the conflict you’re feeling and reassess your situation without judgment.
A “How To Guide” for Putting An End to Inappropriate Guilt
To make this more concrete, I have included an example of a physician who wants more time for him/herself, but feels guilty taking time from family.
Identify what you’re feeling conflicted about that’s creating guilt.
I’m not finding time to do the things I need and want for myself. Work already takes up too much of my time. I feel guilty taking more time away from family.
Write down your underlying feelings, needs, and wants in this situation (It’s key to write these down, get them out of your HEAD, and see them on paper).
All day long I am giving to patients. When I come home, I am giving to my family. After the kids are in bed, I finish my charting and I’m exhausted. I get up the next day and do the same thing over again. I don’t have hardly any time for myself. At the very least I want to exercise more regularly, and eat healthier and get more sleep. It would be great to be able to work on improving my career and just do something for myself, anything!
Look for where you are judging yourself or comparing yourself to others in this situation.
I feel it’s selfish to take time away from my family. I made the decision to have these children and they should come first. Dr. So and So seems to find time to work and be the perfect parent. I waste what little time I have procrastinating and internet surfing.
Write down the potential benefits if you meet this need.
If I take more time for myself, I will:
Be able to exercise more and feel healthier and less stressed
Be more patient and present for my loved ones
Feel better about myself
Have better relationships (avoid jeopardizing my marriage and job)
Be able to work on my career and make progress
Be healthier and happier for the long run
Not build up underlying resentment
Realize how important my happiness is, and make it a priority
Write down the potential negatives of meeting this need.
If I take more time for myself:
My family could feel neglected
My spouse could feel I’m not doing my share of the household duties
I might cut my work hours and see a drop in income
My family might have to see some budget cuts
I could discover I HAVE TO make some changes and that’s scary
Others may see me as being selfish
Write down the cost to you and others if you continue to deny this need or want.
I continue to be unhappy
I become more grumpy, irritable, and resentful
I damage my relationships at work and home
My health suffers; I develop some illness or disease
I grow to hate getting up every day and feeling overwhelmed
I feel like I am wasting my life
I end up not doing anything well
Step back and look at the whole situation. Ask yourself what choices will lead in the direction of optimum mental, physical and emotional well-being and health – for you. Then make any changes you can that will support this overall move towards, not away from, healthy and joyful living. Nothing has to change overnight. Making even small steps over time in the right direction can profoundly change the course of your life. And remember – innocent until proven guilty!