Prioritizing our wellbeing can be hard to do at the best of times – not to mention during COVID. Here’s how to make space for it without feeling guilty.
It’s amazing how many things we’re capable of feeling guilty about in a day.
You weren’t very productive at work – you feel guilty and stay late. Then you feel guilty for not being with your family because of that extra time at the office. Plus, you haven’t called your mother yet today: guilty. And you really should have organized something special for your husband’s birthday: guilty. You missed breakfast: guilty. You snacked instead: double guilty.
And, worst of all, you probably feel guilty about feeling guilty.
As one of the most common and inhibiting emotions we suffer, guilt has the potential to wreak real havoc on our lives. We feel guilty for wanting more, then we feel guilty for getting what we wanted. We feel guilty for not taking care of ourselves, then we feel guilty for the time we spent doing just that.
So how do we get out of this cycle? How do we better manage our guilt to live happier and more fulfilling lives?
In this post we’ll explore why guilt has come to be such a universal emotion, how this is creating a landscape for disappointment, and what you can do to turn things around and create a more balanced and healthier life.
Why we experience guilt
Guilt is the feeling that occurs when we’ve done something that we believe has had a negative impact on someone around us. And, in the right quantities, this really isn’t a bad thing.
Being able to understand how our actions affect the lives of others is a show of empathy, and it’s what allows us to maintain meaningful relationships with the people around us. On a larger scale, guilt is what drives us to reciprocate kindness, avoid self-indulgence and forgive each other during conflict.
But behind all this positive intent, there can be a flip side to this emotion.
Whether we’re dealing with mom-guilt, work-guilt, spousal-guilt, or a whole host of others, too much empathy can lead to the misguided belief that our own wants and needs aren’t as important as those of the people around us. That it’s easier cope with our own discomfort than with the guilt of letting someone else down.
But when we stop enjoying meals out with our spouse because we feel awful about leaving our kids with a sitter, or we begin skipping workouts to finish that spreadsheet our colleague asked for, that’s when it’s time to step back and assess how guilt may be stopping us from living the life we want.
How feeling guilty can impact your health
We can all relate to that deeply uncomfortable feeling that comes from a mind wracked with guilt. The heavy heart, the butterflies in the stomach, the brain that just won’t shut off. Not only is this experience emotionally unpleasant, it can also cause real damage to our bodies.
As it turns out, these sensations aren’t just in our heads. They’re actually physical responses that stem from an increase in the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline – both members of our “fight, flight or freeze” response.
While these hormones are great at helping us when we need to avoid danger, stress or immediate trauma, regular exposure can lead to an increase in blood pressure and a heightened risk of heart disease, diabetes, depression, and anxiety disorders.
And if these stress-related issues weren’t enough, there’s also all the downstream effects that come with not taking care of ourselves. Our sleep, our nutrition, our fitness – even our sense of self-worth and self-esteem can suffer greatly when we don’t make time for our own self-care. Too much guilt can put us at risk for conditions like insomnia, obesity, chronic pain and headaches, and can eventually lead us to a point where we can no longer show up for the people we were so concerned about disappointing. How’s that for ironic?
Overcoming feelings of guilt
Guilt is a conditioned emotion, which means we learn what we should feel guilty about through our upbringing, beliefs and experiences. And while this may mean that our triggers are pretty deeply rooted, it also means that we have an opportunity to relearn these patterns if we choose to put in the following work:
1. Identify your sources of guilt
Before you can change your situation, you first have to understand what’s bringing about these feelings of guilt. Whenever those pangs of discomfort arise, take a moment to stop and think about what’s going on.
Maybe, for example, you feel anxious about leaving work at the end of the day if you don’t feel like you’ve checked everything off your to-do list. That there’s no way you could sign off and head to the gym with a clear conscience if there were still unanswered emails in your inbox.
Or perhaps most of your guilt stems from being a parent. That you’re not doing enough, not doing things right, or that spending time on yourself instead of with your kids would be selfish and irresponsible.
Whatever your triggers, creating clarity on how guilt is showing up in your life is the first step in setting the stage for change.
2. Reframe the situation
Now that we know what’s driving these feelings, it’s time to adjust the thought processes that may be steering us towards guilt.
Whenever you hear that voice in your head telling you that you’re failing your coworkers, or that you’re not being a good parent to your kids, try to recognize these thoughts for what they really are: a story you’re telling yourself. After all, it’s not objectively true that you should feel bad about this or that; it’s only true because of the way you’re interpreting the situation.
Instead of letting guilt take over, embrace the opportunity to reframe these events. Ask yourself: Is there another way to look at this? You might, for instance, come to realize that there wasn’t as much of an urgency for that spreadsheet as you thought, or that your kids might actually enjoy some time with their babysitter.
3. Set expectations
Sometimes guilt comes from feeling like you need to be available to everyone, all the time. But the long and short of it is this: You don’t. Period. Not to your boss, not to your spouse, not to your kids.
Now, in saying this, we’re not suggesting that you sign out of Slack for good or that you totally tune out to the needs of your family, but rather that you begin to set realistic expectations of what you can offer, and when.
When you avoid people-pleasing and stop over-promising, you can cut your to-do list in half and stop worrying about all those extra little things that aren’t getting done in the day. This allows you to better focus on the task at hand and leads you to be more productive with the energy you are spending in each of your various roles – whether that’s of a colleague, parent, friend, spouse, etc. You end up getting more done, in less time.
4. Be patient
As much as we’d love to snap our fingers and promise that you’ll never feel guilty again, it’s important to note that these things take time.
Reseting your mindset to overcome guilt is an ongoing process, and it’s not uncommon to continue experiencing these types of feelings, even after you’ve made some really positive changes. And that’s okay. Sometimes you’ll struggle with this more, and sometimes you’ll feel it less, but in either case it’s a process, so be self-compassionate about the journey.
We may get to the end of our lives and look back to realize we missed so many great moments worrying about what we weren’t doing right, or who we were letting down along the way. But it doesn’t have to be like that.
Conquering guilt isn’t about removing the things that make us feel uneasy, but rather about reframing how we prioritize who needs our time and attention (including ourselves), improving how we manage our own (and others’) expectations about what we can achieve in a day, and building self-compassion for those times when we fail to live up to these expectations.
So live your life on your terms, and don’t let guilt steer you away from building a life you love.