How many times a day do you hop aboard the ‘Guilt Trip Express’? Do you berate yourself for eating that extra slice of cake? Accuse yourself of being a bad mother, daughter or friend? Are you saying ‘sorry’ too much? Women are particularly prone to high levels of guilt, especially in the ‘sandwich years’, when we may be juggling work with raising a family and the needs of ageing parents. Christmas is a particularly guilt-laden time, with so many people to please. Here are some ways to start shaking off the psychological burden. It takes time to change old patterns, so be patient and kind to yourself along the way.
Remember, everyone experiences guilt – it’s part of being human, so you’re not alone. Guilt can be healthy as it motivates us to live by our own values and foster happy relationships, but it can easily get out of hand. If you forget to send a birthday card, or feel too tired to invite the neighbours over for the traditional Christmas drinks, or put off the housework, it’s all too easy to sink into self-berating talk, such as ‘I’m terrible/lazy/a slob’. At this point, says Melanie Greenberg, you need to stop, take a breath and ‘examine the evidence’. Would you be so harsh and critical on anyone else? The answer is most likely no. Try not to think in black and white, and use new ways of considering a situation. You may not feel like the best parent on the planet – does that necessarily mean you’re the worst? Of course not.
✢ DO IT ‘If you feel guilty for not working hard enough for your family, write a list of all the things you regularly do for them,’ advises Melanie. ‘Keep that list in your bag and pull it out when guilt rears its head.’
We often try to handle stress with counterproductive methods. ‘Perfectionism is an attempt to manage stress by staying in control, says Melanie, ‘but it often backfires.’ It leads to procrastinating, feeling overwhelmed, giving up or not trying in the first place. Guilt is equally unhelpful, she warns. Our culture sends us strong messages about not being ‘selfish’, which we interpret in an ‘all or nothing’ way, causing undue anxiety if we make a mistake.
✢ DO IT Set limits on yourself. Fix the amount of time you’ll spend on, say, tree decorating or writing thank-yous. Cleaning? Two wipes maximum, then move on. Note the precious time saved.
Women tend to apologise when there’s no need to because we’re worried about coming across as intimidating or intrusive. How many times have you started a potentially assertive statement with ‘I’m sorry, but’? ‘Your voice deserves to be heard and valued,’ says Julie de Azevedo Hanks. ‘Incessant apologising weakens your boundary. Save your sorries for when you’ve truly done something wrong.’
✢ DO IT Breathe evenly and maintain eye contact when you’re making an assertion. Resist the temptation to slouch or check your phone in an attempt to lessen the directness of the exchange. It may not come easily, but keep practising.
Guilt comes in many guises, so it can be hard to pinpoint where it’s coming from. We all have tender spots which, like any other bruises, hurt when pressed. Julie says connecting up the past with the present will help you recognise where they lie. Think about your childhood – were you given messages about having to be a ‘good girl’ or ‘perfect mum’, which could be triggering a sense of shame now? The beauty of being a grownup is that you can pick and choose the messages you want to keep.
✢ DO IT Make a chart of all the emotions you can think of, including happiness, anger, sadness, fear, surprise and disgust. Keep it close to hand so you can tune in to what you’re feeling. This will build up your ‘shame resistance’ and self-awareness, both essential life tools.
‘Would you be so harsh and critical on anyone else? The answer is most likely no’
‘Boundaries define us as unique individuals,’ says Julie. These can be physical – how close someone stands next to you on the bus, for example – or abstract, like an acquaintance asking an intrusive question: ‘Why have you never had kids?’ Weak boundaries are like a fence without strong posts that can be pushed over. If they’re too rigid, you’ve created a high stone wall with no gate. ‘You decide what kind of fence you’ll build,’ Julie adds, ‘and what comes in and out of your personal space, physical and emotional. Every person has the right to say when someone else is too close, too dependent, too involved or intertwined. You choose your company.’
✢ DO IT When we feel guilty about asserting ourselves for fear of upsetting others, it can be hard to find the right words. Julie recommends a ‘soft start’ to conversations. Saying ‘I notice your wet towel is on the bathroom floor’ in a calm tone, will be more successful than ‘you’ve left your damn towel in a heap again!’
The word ‘no’ is one of the most important we ever learn. It communicates: ‘I am me. I am not you. I think, feel, want and need different things.’ Yet giving yourself permission to say no may contradict your upbringing, the ancient sense that women need to sacrifice themselves for others. ‘I’ve learnt that people often aren’t as fragile as we think they are,’ says Julie. ‘No one ever died from being disappointed.’ Don’t overcommit, is her advice.
✢ DO IT Learn new ways to turn down invitations. Three effective examples are:
1 ‘No, I can’t do that, but here’s what I can do…’
2 ‘I’m going to say no for now. I’ll let you know if something changes.’
3 ‘That’s just not going to work for me.’ ■