Why do I still feel guilty? (And how to stop it) | CAROL

Today has been a really uncomfortable day for me. It started out when I got a text message from a client needing to cancel her appointment. That text was followed by two more clients canceling appointments. Suddenly, the day I had planned didn’t exist anymore. I had no clients to see, and my schedule was now a blank slate.  

This kind of day tends to throw me off my center. On one hand, it feels like a gift. I have the whole day ahead of me and I get to design it any way I want. On the other hand, I feel a little paralyzed. I have the whole day ahead of me and I’m not sure what I want to do to with it. Should I run errands? Go to a yoga class? Clean out a closet that has been nagging at me for years? Stay in my pajamas all day and read? Call a friend to meet for lunch? The options are endless, yet I am feeling anxious.   

I think I’ve finally figured out why days like this are so difficult for me. I feel guilt. And anxiety. That’s it: guilt and anxiety.

Why in the world should I, an empowered beneficiary of the women’s movement, feel guilty in 2018? I’m not sure it’s isolated to regions of the world where women feel we have the power and choice to do whatever we want. I believe most women around the world can relate. I often wonder if any of us can go an entire day without feeling guilty about something. 

What is this all about? 

According to the popular motivational speaker Denise Duffield-Thomas, author of Get Rich, Lucky Bitch!, guilt is “one of the most common feelings women suffer”. “You might feel guilty,” Duffield-Thomas writes, “for wanting more, or for spending money on yourself, or for taking time out of your busy family life to work on improving yourself. You might feel guilty that other people are poor, that your friend is jealous, that there are starving people in the world.”  I will be the first to admit that I have felt guilty about all of those things at one time or another, and if it’s not one of these things, it’s something else.  

I often wonder if my own mother ever felt guilty. She was a typical post-World War II housewife and mother, who worked during the war when all the men were gone, and then quit working after she married my military veteran dad, like most women did back then. I’ve heard this referred to as “the depression generation”, because women had the opportunity during the war to work and make a difference when the world was in need, but were sent back home afterward, leaving the “important” work to men. (Although you won’t get an argument from me that raising children is actually the most important work in the world.) I think women suffered a collective reduction in self-esteem during that time. 


Back to my mother.  

That was her life, until one day, when I was about 9 years old, my brothers and sister and I came home from school to find a note from her, informing us that she had taken a retail job downtown and wouldn’t be home until late.

While my memories I have of this time are somewhat hazy, and I don’t really remember how I felt about that day, I do remember seeing profoundly depressed mother most of my life. She tried to be happy as a homemaker and wife, raising her children, sewing our clothes, cooking our meals, and cleaning our house. 

This was in the mid-1950’s, and that is what women in North America did.  

What I don’t remember is ever seeing evidence of her feeling guilty once she started working. If she was, she didn’t show it.

As I think back on this today, I wish she were here so I could ask her. After all, I was still a young child. My older sister came home from school and found out that she was now the babysitter, and that was that.

According to my sister, my mother never discussed her plan with her, and she certainly didn’t ask for my dad’s permission. (He wasn’t pleased.) When my mother came home from work that first night, she was giddy with excitement.

She hadn’t worked outside the home for over a decade, and if she was worried about the well-being of her children left at home, she did not show it. 

I don’t judge her. The world seemed safer back then, I guess, and I assume she felt comfortable enough leaving my older sister in charge.

The biggest threats in most people’s minds at the time were from Cold-War politics and rampant fears that a bomb would be dropped on us. We had bomb drills at school and crouched under our desks (as if that could really protect anyone from the blast of a nuclear bomb). And we had a crawl space in our basement we called “The Hole”, where we were supposed to go in the event of anything unusual falling from the sky. 

Meanwhile, we ran around the neighborhood unsupervised, and I swear my mother had no idea where we were most of the time anyway, so it didn’t seem to be that big of a deal when she found a job and left us to our own devices. 

As a wife and mother myself, I have deep empathy for her and her generation. I came of age in the late 1970’s, and there still was a great deal of open judgment toward women who wanted to work outside of the home. But it was more accepted than when my mother was my age. 

American activist, writer and feminist, Betty Friedan, researched the lives of 1950’s and 60’s middle-class, white women in the United States and found that while women did feel guilt, it was more connected to their profound unhappiness with their circumstances. They were told by society that they were supposed to find satisfaction from raising their children and being a wife, and they felt guilty because many of them were not satisfied at all.

She writes in her book, The Feminine Mystique, that women struggled with “feelings of failure and nothingness”, feelings of “Is this all?” guilt, and a longing for some “unknown absence”. According to a National Institute of Health report, anxiety was at the forefront of medical and psychiatric attention in the United States in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and that depression, considered a rare disease in the post-World War II period, began to replace anxiety in the 1970’s. 

So, here we are in 2018, and guilt continues to torture us. Have we evolved at all?   

Today, as I sit here at Starbucks, sipping iced tea, inhaling the soothing and warm smells of coffee imported from Guatemala, I think I’m getting closer to giving myself a break from guilt. My children are grown. I don’t need to find babysitters or feel guilty if I am working instead of baking cookies for them after school.

Yes, I still feel guilty and anxious, but this time it’s because I’m not working. I believe that I’ve earned the right to not feel guilty anymore because I like to work. So maybe I should not feel guilty when I don’t work? Sounds like a good goal to work on. 

Let’s make a pact--all of us. Now.

The fact is, we are always evolving. Everyone: Men, women, children, societies.

Fact #2: Change takes a l-o-n-g time. We all know that. Let’s move on despite the slow pace, and trust that incremental change is powerful and takes us in the right direction. Let’s give ourselves and each other a break, and recognize that there is not a one-size-fits-all life for all women. Here are some thoughts on how we might do it: 

STOP APOLOGIZING FOR YOUR CHOICES, as long as they are choices you’ve made purposefully.

Own them, proudly and respectfully.

We are more than a product of our families, our societies, or our generations. We each have our own unique set of needs, passions, interests, values, and beliefs. Examine all of them and decide if any of them need to be challenged or pursued.

For example, are you holding on to a belief or value based on childhood or societal expectations? If so, ask yourself honestly: “If I let this go, will I regret it when I’m 80?” “If I don’t pursue this, will I regret it when I’m 80?”  Live your life resolutely and with integrity for your own sense of self. If you do, you will never regret it. 

It sounds simple. It’s not. But it is a place to start.

When you stop apologizing for your choices, you free up emotional space to start acting in your own best interest. I know, I know. That sounds selfish, but it’s not. Women are caregivers and we worry about being selfish.

But here’s what I tell my clients: You are not more or less important than anyone else. You are just as important as anyone else.

Keep that in mind and try this exercise to help get you going: 

  1. Ask yourself: What is one thing I truly want to achieve? 

  2. Ask yourself: What are the steps to do so? 

  3. Give yourself a task to take that first step in the next 24 hours (any longer and motivation tends to disappear). As Nike likes to say: “Just Do It”. 

Giving yourself a goal and following through with action can actually help you feel better about yourself—and less guilty for doing something you want to do. Achievement is part of our design, and when we accomplish something, even when it’s for our own self-development, the guilt subsides.  

Try this simple practice, an you will be on your way to reducing your guilt. And remember, guilt should be reserved for when you’ve actually done something wrong, or hurt someone in some way, and certainly not when you are giving yourself permission to follow a dream, a passion or even just a day off from work. It gets easier with practice. 

I’m practicing right here at Starbucks, and it’s already getting easier for me, too.