It’s a modern-day problem that affects more women than men – sometimes it even threatens to take over our lives. But you can take back control and learn how to stop feeling guilty all the time…
A huge 96% of women find something to feel guilty about at least once a day, while for almost half of us, feelings of guilt can invade our daily lives up to four times a day. And topping our list of what triggers those guilty feelings? Eating unhealthily, followed closely by not spending enough time with family.
In 2010, a study published in the Spanish Journal of Psychology seemed to prove that women have a greater capacity for guilt than men. Researchers concluded that the female guilty conscience is a consequence of nurture, not nature. They claimed that, through socialisation and education, women are raised to be more conscious of, and anxious about, the feelings of others – a key factor in guilt.
But extreme guilt among women – the kind that invades your every thought and complicates your every decision – is a truly modern phenomenon. It’s what happens when our guilty conscience collides with the endless choices that modern life presents us with.
The challenge of choices and the guilt that comes with it
For generations past, life was simpler, expectations were lower and choices – for women in particular – were limited. For instance, until recently, few women had the chance (let alone the choice) to pursue a career and a family life, or deal with the guilt that often goes with it.
Today, every aspect of our lives – the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the schools our children attend, the things that we buy, the jobs we do, the relationships we’re in, even the TV channels we watch – presents us with so many choices to agonise over what is right and wrong, that it’s all too easy to feel permanently anxious and, yes, guilt-ridden.
We are Generation Guilt. Guilt is clearly a symptom of living a complicated life, and not a symptom of being a bad person, according to Professor Windy Dryden, who is a counselling psychologist and the author of Coping With Guilt (SPCK Publishing).
But it’s vital to keep it in check. ‘Guilt in itself isn’t a bad thing – it really depends what sort of guilt it is,’ he says. ‘It’s important to distinguish healthy “remorse” at having done wrong, from destructive guilt that serves no purpose other than making you feel negatively about yourself.’
How to stop feeling guilty about not being able to be in multiple places at once
It might seem absurd, but this is something that many of us feel guilty about. Situations that might give rise to guilty feelings are, of course, impossible to avoid. ‘Especially these days, when there are so many conflicting demands on our time,’ says Professor Dryden.
‘Perhaps you feel really guilty that you missed your child’s school play to visit a sick aunt (or saw the play instead of visiting your aunt) – either way, it’s always a tough choice, and you’re likely to feel a degree of guilt whatever you choose to do. Whether the guilt we feel is healthy or unhealthy is up to us.’ But without the option of being in two places at once, a choice must be made. Feeling guilty about these choices helps absolutely no one.
Change your attitude towards guilt
Professor Dryden says, ‘It’s a common mistake to think that guilt proves how caring we are. Feeling guilty, and telling others that we feel guilty, has become a shorthand for saying that we’re a nice, caring person. Among female friends, in particular, guilt has become a part of everyday conversation.’
So is it time to change our thinking? Know that it’s not always possible to do the ‘right’ thing, that doing the ‘wrong’ thing doesn’t always make us ‘bad’ people, that putting ourselves first isn’t necessarily selfish, and that it’s possible to care without feeling guilty. We’re going to try. And if we don’t succeed straight away? We won’t feel guilty about it.
How to get on top of guilt
- Take control
Guilt is a choice. It’s self-inflicted pain. ‘You made it; you need to take responsibility for it. No one can make you feel guilty: you either do or you don’t – it’s up to you,’ says Professor Dryden.
- Do an audit
Take time to think of the ways that guilt effects your life. While healthy guilt (aka remorse) can help you improve your life, unhealthy guilt can keep us trapped in unhappy situations (like a bad relationship) or prevent us from making good choices (like accepting a great new job).
- Be flexible
Develop a more flexible attitude towards life; if your behaviour isn’t ‘perfect’, work on accepting that it’s impossible to be perfect. And be kinder to yourself – give yourself a break every now & then.
- Stop saying it!
Telling everyone you feel guilty about something doesn’t change the situation or prove you’re a caring person. So, stop bringing it up.
Here’s how you can banish guilt and start putting yourself first:
- Speak up. It’s time others listened to what you want.
- Take action and stop putting off that yoga class you’ve been dying to try.
- Stop taking on tasks that people are capable of doing themselves. The kids can make their own beds.