I’m just not able to do it all—why can other women? Laura said during our first session. The 35-year-old, an executive at a pharmaceutical company, had a whopping case of the “shoulds”—as in, she thought she “should” be scheduling more activities for her kids/cooking instead of ordering in/having more fabulous sex with her husband. She worried that she was failing her family.
For a lot of women these days, “having it all” includes having a whole lot of guilt. It’s not just our distress about successfully juggling the demands in our lives, which are many. Social media has made things worse; now we can regularly see how much everyone else is accomplishing, since hardly anyone posts about their failures.
Women typically experience more guilt than men, for the obvious reason: We tend to be more empathetic, so we’re more concerned about how our actions affect others. Thoughtful, sensitive types are also likelier to feel contrite. And if one or both of your parents was overly critical of you as a child, you can carry guilt into adulthood.
In some instances, remorse is good. It’s a way of facing the fact that we’re not living up to our own values and standards, and it’s a reminder to acknowledge and fix mistakes—say, when you unjustly lose it with your spouse. Too often, though, guilt goes from intermittent to habitual and can even bleed into shame. We end up feeling that we’re crappy mothers, employees, partners and friends, when just the opposite is true.
These are some of the strategies I recommend to Laura and other patients that you, too, can use to stop guilting yourself.
The guilt suck: I’m a health slacker.
You skipped your morning run. You ate half a sleeve of Girl Scout cookies as a dinner appetizer. Now you’re beating yourself up for being a willpower wimp. Many of us have had it drilled into our heads that exercising regularly and eating healthfully equals being “good,” while indulging in the occasional treat or skipping a workout makes us “bad.” Family obligations can add fuel to the guilt fire; according to a 2014 Kansas State University study, many parents struggle to establish an exercise routine because they feel guilty about taking time for themselves.
Escaping self-condemnation starts with giving yourself permission to, for example, indulge at an upcoming meal or party. If you plan it, you’re taking control—so you won’t feel weak. Or if you know you’re in for a hectic workweek, schedule one fewer gym session. (And if you do manage to fit in an extra one, bonus star for you!)
Should you bail on a workout, think of how you’d reassure a girlfriend who did the same: “So what if you missed it? It’s better to relax and recharge for once.” Be your own best friend. If you’re berating yourself over a food choice, stop the spiral of self-hate by owning up to your feelings: Wish I hadn’t eaten the loaded nachos, but what’s done is done! Then focus on how you’ll eat well the next day.
The guilt suck: I don’t do enough for my family.
Given how programmed and scheduled children are nowadays, it’s no surprise that women feel extra pressure to be their kids’ cruise directors—and guilty that we aren’t doing more. But the truth is, unstructured time is beneficial to kids. It gives them the chance to be creative, problem-solve and innovate. When my kids were young, I’d set a timer for 15 minutes and tell them, “Go do whatever you want, as long as it’s not the TV or computer. You’ll figure it out.” Inevitably, they got lost in something productive for hours.
RELATED: 18 Habits of the Happiest Families
Many of us also fear that we’re falling short as a spouse, whether because we haven’t reminded ours to get to the gym or carved out time for regular date nights. My suggestion: Just tell him that you’re feeling bad about it. He might say he hadn’t even noticed. No matter what, you’re letting him know that he’s on your mind, which will ease your conscience.
The guilt suck: I’m a social dropout.
“Join my book club!” “Please be the chair of the school car wash drive!” Maybe your heart isn’t in it or you don’t have enough time to commit, but even the thought of saying no can kick off a feel-bad trip. There’s the basic wish to be liked and agreeable, as well as the irrational fear of being left out. The best tactic isn’t to delay the decision (“Let me get back to you on that!”), because you’ll drag out the guilt, along with the other person’s hope. Remember: You’re turning down one thing, not forever saying no to volunteering. Try this bulletproof response: “Thanks for thinking of me. I appreciate the vote of confidence—but I’ve got a lot on my plate, and I can’t fit this in right now.” Repeat, repeat, repeat.
The guilt suck: I’m not always up for sex.
On those nights when getting snoozy seems far more appealing than getting busy, it’s difficult not to feel bad for your partner. But the thing is, being a fembot who always says yes to sex, no matter what the circumstance, isn’t healthy for a relationship either. Even for men, sexual excitement isn’t just about the act—they want to feel wanted, and they can tell when their partner isn’t into it. In the moment, saying something like “Can I take a rain check for tomorrow?” allows you to say no, tells your husband that you’re still attracted to him and alleviates any guilty feeling that you’re pushing him away.
RELATED: 13 Reasons to Have More Sex
The guilt suck: I’m a workaholic.
Today, many women have to check work email after hours, and we beat ourselves up over it: One study in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior of more than 1,000 employees found that women felt significantly more guilty than guys about engaging with work outside of normal business hours. This mainly boils down to us ladies feeling that we are our kids’ primary nurturer—and that we’re neglecting that responsibility when we do anything career-related while our children are around. Men, however, are more likely to believe that making money is their way of nurturing their family, so for them, checking office email is consistent with caretaking. These feelings persist even when both partners earn an income and the wife’s paycheck is just as crucial as the man’s—and even when the woman is the main breadwinner.
The flip side of 24/7 connectivity is that it allows many of us to duck out of the office earlier to, for instance, make it to that school concert without experiencing guilt trips at work. So stop with the self-hating. As long as you’re not cemented to your screen at night or on weekends, dealing with the occasional job issue is a model to kids that work matters. Set specific times to check mail; ditto for glancing at Facebook and other social media. And then you can return to your previously scheduled life, guilt-free.
Insta guilt zappers
Do a reality check.
If you spaced on helping your kid with a class project, consider whether you typically try (yep) and whether you usually consider homework important (yep). Absolved!
Saying “I’m sorry” may seem obvious, but it’s far too common to stew or wallow in guilt rather than just owning up to the mistake, which will make you feel a lot better in the end.
Find the solution.
Try to avoid situations that make you feel bad. If you tend to regret getting upset with your husband for, say, failing to take out the garbage, have him schedule it into his calendar.
Guilt can unfairly make you see yourself in the worst possible light. Remove that spell by reminding yourself about something you did right (I made it to spin class yesterday!).
And if someone is guilting you…
Noticing that a person is trying to make you feel bad is half the battle—because then you won’t internalize it. The best way to deal: Don’t respond in the moment. At a later time, tell the guilter, “You know, after our conversation about [fill in the blank]—and I could be misreading you!—I got the impression that I should have felt guilty. If that’s not the case, let me know, but if something is going on here, I want to talk about it.” It opens the door to conversation. At the very least, she will understand the effect she had on you and might think before she sighs or rolls her eyes next time.