Grappling with Guilt

“Guilt is anger directed at ourselves.” Peter McWillaims

Last week I was having an interesting conversation about “guilt” with my best friend. We were talking about how guilt can stop us in our tracks and freeze our progress in self-improvement. While some basic guilt is needed, this isn’t the guilt we were talking about. We were talking about the “bad” guilt. The guilt that leaves us feeling miserable without benefit. The guilt that leaves us hurt and ineffective.

We were talking about one specific area where we felt guilty, health. We both had improvements to make and steps we wanted to take. And we were both resisting these steps, leaving that familiar pang of guilt on our shoulders. As we talked about how good it would feel to take some positive steps in order to relinquish our guilt, she then brought up the notion that guilt would then surface in a different area of our lives. I realized how right she was. Most of us have become addicted to the very unhealthy emotion of guilt.

My friend voiced aloud “What is guilt?” And then responded, “It is our ‘should’ list. We should be doing _____, We should be accomplishing _____.”

When I left that conversation I couldn’t leave the concept of guilt behind. I have long believed guilt to be a useless emotion. However, as my days get busier and busier and I am pulled in more and more directions, guilt has resurfaced in my life. I don’t want to make a lot of room for it. Bad guilt is paralyzing and unhealthy, so I immediately began to process ways to “greet guilt” and then send it on its way.

I sat down that evening and made a “guilty list.” I set my timer for 20 minutes and kept completing this sentence over and over again:

I feel guilty about __________________________

I was amazed to find my list covered three pages! Just the act of writing this out began to make me feel better, yet I still needed to go further.

I then looked at the list for statements that were just silly–i.e., what I was feeling guilty about was beyond my control. I crossed off these sentences.

I then began to look at the other items on my list. They generally fell into three areas:

1. They surrounded my priorities. They were actions I was taking or not taking that were important to the progression of my core values.

2. They surrounded someone else’s priorities. Although they weren’t related to my own core values, I knew it was important to someone else, and I felt guilty for not meeting those needs.

3. They were constrained by time. Meeting the entire list would be impossible in a 24/7 day, even if I did sacrifice all self-care (which we know is a bad thing!).

After identifying the source or “category” of my guilt, it was time to create an action plan to send guilt on its way.

Any guilty feelings that fall into the first category, surrounding your priorities, are the ones we need to work with most. To begin with, I divided a piece of paper into four columns and labeled them:

Guilty Feeling


Healthy Feeling

Action Step

In the first column, I wrote down the guilty feeling. In the Healthy Feeling column I recorded the opposite of the guilty feeling, i.e. In order not to feel guilty, what would this have to look like?

For example: I feel guilty about not eating better.

Healthy Feeling: I will eat healthier on a regular basis.

Then in the opposition column, I wrote down what is happening in my life that is stopping me from reaching that Healthy Feeling.

After completing this with each guilt-thought-pattern, I then asked myself: Is overcoming this opposition something within my control? For example, eating better is within my control. But if I felt guilt for a co-dependent person, changing that person is not within my control.

For the areas I had control over, I chose an action step. A small action step. It is important that this be a small action step, since the reason we are feeling guilty is because we have been resisting this area of our life for whatever reason. A small action step in the health department would be:

Adding two servings of vegetables a week or

Adding one glass of water a day or

Taking a one-hour walk per week

It doesn’t take a big step, to step over guilt. The worst thing you can do is pick something too big and then end up feeling more guilty — so keep it realistic. If you have a hard time setting realistic goals, do this part of the exercise with a friend or have a friend look over your work.

What about those items in this group that you cannot control or change? Write them all down on a separate piece of paper. Then rip it up. This guilt is not yours to carry. It will only be a weight on your shoulders and prevent you from competently dealing with the areas within your control.

Now, let’s move onto the second group of items, those items that surround someone else’s priorities.

Take another sheet of paper and label it with the following columns.

Guilty Feeling

Whose priorities are these?

Healthy Feeling

Action Step

List out the guilty thoughts and feelings along with the person whose priorities or expectations create that feeling of guilt in you. Next, look at the names. Circle the names of those people who are a TOP priority in your life. Usually, this will include your immediate family and perhaps a few close friends.

Place a SQUARE around those people who are in your second priority group.

Most people will find they have a few names listed that aren’t in their first or second priority group. We will start with that category. CROSS THEM OFF! You can’t save the world and meet everyone’s expectations. Trying to do so will only drain you further and lead to more guilt, which will leave you ineffective for doing what really matters. No one can win in that scenario.

Likewise, if there is something that is outside of your control (like our co-dependent example above) cross that off your list. You cannot help someone who will not help themselves. One afternoon I was discussing a problem-person with a friend in human resources. She told me “All your faith in the world in that person cannot make up for the lack of faith they have in themselves.” It was a hard lesson to learn, but one I am eternally grateful for. That doesn’t mean we stop believing in a person, but it does mean we refuse to own their problems or carry them as our own.

Now let’s look at the top priority group. Again record what the healthy feeling would look like. Make sure that it is realistic. For example, if I wrote down the guilty feeling as: Not spending enough time with my daughter, the healthy feeling wouldn’t be Spending all day with my daughter. That is not realistic given my work schedule. A healthy feeling would look more like this: Spending a quality hour of one-on-one time each day with my daughter.

As you do this part of the exercise, make sure to continually ask yourself: Are these healthy expectations? Even those we love can put unhealthy expectations on us out of their own need. The problem with unhealthy expectations is that we will never live up to them. The guilty feeling will always be there because we can never give or do enough. As you look at your list, your gut will likely tell you if you have one of these guilt-sources on your list. Often what happens when people exert unhealthy expectations is we swing to the complete opposite end of the pendulum. Instead of spending time with that person, we avoid them. We know internally we can never do enough, so we intentionally or non-intentionally stay away from the situation. This, as you likely guessed, leads to additional guilty feelings.

Fortunately, there is a middle ground. That middle ground is taking an action step that allows us to feel good and present, but does not compromise our well-being or sap our energy. Here is an example: Let’s say you have a mother or mother-in-law who feels she never gets to see her grandchildren enough. Your action step would be to facilitate a reasonable number of visits, but not to bend over backward, as even ten or twenty visits may not be enough. Again, if you have a hard time coming up with “reasonable action steps” do this part of the exercise with a friend.

Now let’s look at the third guilt-group of time-constraints. Hopefully, by completing and working through Group 1 and Group 2, you will have already freed up some time and focus to help some of the guilt-feelings that are time-driven.

When we look at time-driven guilt, it is important to remember the quote, “We can have it all, just not at the same time.” Time-driven guilt is a big one for me. I always want to do more, give more, share more-and no matter what I do, I often feel I am not giving or sharing enough. I feel like if I am awake, I should be doing or sharing something! We often joke in the office that the one area I could for sure fail at is “relaxation.” Any time I try to relax, I am barraged with all the things “I should” be doing.

What I have had to learn (and am still learning!) is that we can’t give 100% all the time, or we will end up empty. And guess what happens when we are empty? The guilt steps in because we don’t have enough left to give. Likely, we will go through seasons where we can give more externally and seasons where we have to focus more internally. We have to strike a balance in order to remain at our peak. In order to have “up” time, we must also have “down” time.

It is also important to remember that our “external giving” can look very different. For example, a person who is speaking for hours on end, might need more “recharge” time than a person who is attending the talk. Those in high-stress jobs, need to remember that their “down time” can’t be scarified, even for a week, if there “up time” is to be of maximum effectiveness.

So as we look at time-constraint issues, we need to ask ourselves – Is this important right now? Or is this something that needs to wait a month, three months, a year, two years? Anything that is important now will need to be moved to one of the other lists discussed above. Anything that can wait, should be revisited later, and let the guilt go for now.

Copyright © Brook Noel


Grappling with Guilt — 2 Comments

  1. This is great! I have been dealing with too much guilt in my life and wondering how to deal with it. Thanks Brook for this Challenge. I am sitting down this afternoon to start my lists!

  2. Brook-
    You continue to amaze me! This article was great, especially the part about the co-dependent person, a term I have really never been able to define. All I know is that those relationships just feel unhealthy! And you are right, I tend to withdraw completely rather than becoming an emotional battering ram. Your approach focuses on healthy boundaries, a skill I sometimes feel I am just beginning to learn, with large doses of guilt included!
    I just love your action approach to problems. This was similar to your talk on procrastination, which, after going through the analysis, made the reasons for my procrastination so much clearer.
    You have a gift! I am sure folks tell you this all the time, but you seem to understand how the human mind works and how successful change can be made, not an easy task.
    Thanks again for sharing with us and yes, please keep taking time to relax!

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