Guilty as Charged

Having worked with both men and women and their professional and personal development for over 20 years, certain patterns have emerged. These patterns have time and time again proved to be the norm. One such pattern I was once again reminded of this week is that of excessive and unrealistic guilt felt by women in particular.

Joshua Hook

Women beat themselves up on a daily basis and in particular over external events and behaviours of others over which they often have no control. They take responsibility for everything and everyone in their family, including things that might go awry. Women feel guilty for not spending enough time with their family and too much time at work, but then on the other hand carry the burden of guilt for not achieving impossible professional objectives.

Women assume the burden for the quality of their relationships, what the kids may or may not get up to, failing to be a super woman, not to mention their body shapes, appearance and anything else you care to mention. The critical parent is ever present to wag a finger at you and chastise you for falling short of the high levels of perfection you set yourself. The comment by author Erica, ‘Show me a woman who doesn’t feel guilty and I will show you a man,’ sums it up in a sentence.

In essence women feel guilty for not being good enough, whatever that means. The roots for not being enough is hidden in the religious, cultural and familial tenets that suggest from the minute we enter the world that to be a girl and a woman means one has to be “good”. It is our role and duty to be there for everyone at the expense of our own needs and wants.

Putting our own desires ahead of that of everyone else often result in the negative message of being selfish. Women are the nurtures and being selfish is seen as a taboo. This hard wiring to be good and selfless means constantly questioning the impact we have on others around us and when we fall short of our impossible expectations, guilt makes its appearance with a vengeance.

Men do not punish themselves in the same way and instead externalize faults whereas women internalize them and take responsibility and blame for failure. Hand-in-hand with guilt is the need for women to apologize for everything that goes wrong.

Guilt is often associated with depression and eating disorders, both of which are much more prevalent among women than men. Persistent feelings of guilt are also likely to lead to self-punishment. Furthermore, excessive feelings of guilt are demoralizing and impair our cognitive abilities to cope with daily activities thereby exacerbating the cycle of guilt.

The first small step in dealing with guilt is to develop the ability to say “no”. It begins to set the boundaries around ourselves that in the long run allows us to take care of ourselves and not be constantly buffeted by unrealistic expectations and wants of everyone around us. This will by no means be easy as we have carried the burden of guilt since childhood.

Kent Healey

Strategies in learning to deal with guilt include developing a realistic acceptance of ourselves and letting go of judgments, dealing with our ever present internal critic. Alongside this is to acknowledge and celebrate our successes and achievements rather than dismiss them as what we do. Very few of us would consider it acceptable to go around constantly criticizing others, so why is it acceptable to do it to ourselves?

Another powerful tactic is to sit down and record the critical dialogue that we constantly engage with and imagine helping someone else to determine how realistic the expectations are that they have of themselves.I have made the case of being selfish in an earlier post and reiterate that we are unable to take care of others until we learn to take care of ourselves.

Aspire to having a guilt free week!

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