Photography, Tingey Injury Law Firm, Unsplash.com
Whether you’re a people pleaser, boundary breaker, or victim of the comparison trap, you can learn to let go of guilt and finally quiet that inner critic.
It’s normal to feel guilty every now and then. It’s inevitable that we’ll occasionally forget a friend’s birthday or say something hurtful in a disagreement with our partner or lose our cool with our kids when they’re pestering us in the grocery store check-out line. Guilt can be useful when it’s motivating us to apologize, make amends with someone we’ve hurt, or better handle a situation next time. Plus, people who are prone to feeling guilty when they misstep may be more empathetic and good at finding perspective, says Dr. Melanie Badali, a Vancouver-based registered psychologist. “A propensity for guilt has also been associated with constructive use of anger,” she says. In short, there is an upside to guilt.
Photography, Anthony Tran, Unsplash.com
“But when we are always feeling guilty, or feeling guilty when we’ve done nothing wrong, then guilt may not be realistic or helpful,” says Dr. Badali. Guilt is an emotion that some of us need to keep close tabs on, because it can show up unnecessarily. Particularly for people who often question themselves, who struggle with low self-esteem or anxiety, or who worry about how their actions impact others. Guilt can be a symptom of chronic self-doubt, and if left unchecked it can be damaging. But it’s possible to find a healthy balance for your guilty feelings. Our advice? Start with these six things you should never feel guilty about.
If you’re catering to your own needs, or prioritizing yourself, there’s a lot of systemic pressure we have to face or that might be weighing us down.
1. You should never feel guilty for saying no
People pleasers truly struggle with this, but you can say ‘no’ to dinner party hosting duties, an extra project at work, or a vacation with your in-laws. If you’re a ‘yes’ person, though, chances are that you struggle with ‘no’ often, and in all areas of your life. “It’s a pattern of thinking and feeling and behaving,” says Dr. Amber Cohen, a psychologist and owner and director of The Cohen Clinic in Toronto. “It’s a perspective that someone holds, so it’s not usually specific to one area of their life.” Inevitably, agreeing to everything that’s asked of you will often prove to be too much to handle, which can lead to feelings of failure when we can’t make it all work. “If we have overly high standards regarding what it means to be a good human, then we may feel depleted, inadequate, guilty, and ashamed,” says Dr. Badali.
When you’re new to ‘no,’ it can help to be honest about how difficult it is for you. Try this line when turning down a party invitation or declining a request to chair an office fundraising committee, for example. Instead of a long-winded and overly apologetic reply, you can simply say: “It’s really hard for me to say no, but I have to this time.” Period.
2. You should never feel guilty for being you
There are days when many of us feel that we don’t measure up to someone else in our life—or on our social media feeds. “Name an area where you can compare yourself to someone else and you will find an area where guilt can grow,” says Dr. Badali. Whether you’ve just forgotten the new neighbour’s name or feel that you’re not giving enough to a favourite charity, or you’ve neglected to sign up for another volunteer role at your child’s school, it’s easy to think someone else would never. Comparison can be both a thief of joy, and a harbinger of guilt.
3. You should never feel guilty for needing ‘me time’
Photography, Toa Heftiba, Unsplash.com
Yes, even if you’re a parent. “There is so much narrative in our culture about putting our kids first, so if you are catering to your own needs, or prioritizing yourself, there’s a lot of systemic pressure we have to face or that might be weighing on us,” says Dr. Cohen. “Even though realistically probably no one is pointing a finger at us, these things are embedded in our psyches,” she says. “For parenting in particular, if you aren’t sparking your own joy—finding moments to relax and fill up with what makes you happy—I don’t see how that can translate into being a parent that is present for a child.”
‘Me time’ is necessary for everyone, not just moms. Even still, you might feel sheepish about booking a day off work to engage in some self-care, or shameful about skipping a family gathering because you need that Saturday afternoon to take some time for yourself. But we all have to fill our cups if we’re going to be successful in all areas of our lives, from romantic relationships to professional responsibilities.
If you have trouble enjoying a lunch break or a week’s holiday because you feel you should be doing something more ‘useful,’ it’s time to get your facts straight.
4. You should never feel guilty for what you ate yesterday
A mistake that many of us make is approaching healthy living with an all- or-nothing mentality. “That’s what we see on social media—you’re either healthy or you’re not,” says Dr. Cohen. But taking care of ourselves is constant hard work that will require breaks and resets from time to time. If you’ve been on a vacation where you enjoyed a lot of food (and cocktails!), or are recovering from an injury that has kept you out of the gym for a few weeks, you might be feeling guilty about falling away from your healthy habits and routines. Instead of dwelling on the fact that your health goals have been derailed, remember that you can simply get back on track whenever you’re ready. Every day is a new day, and every moment is a new moment to make a new choice, says Dr. Cohen. “Even if you fell off and had cookies for breakfast, for some people then the whole day, or even the week would be a wash, but really your next meal is a new opportunity to make a different decision for yourself,” she says.
5. You should never feel guilty for resting
Photography, Andisheh A., Unsplash.com
Nobody needs to work nonstop or be constantly tied to their phone to be productive. Success doesn’t only belong to go-getters who work themselves into exhaustion. If you’re dodging downtime because you feel guilty about it, it’s time to put those intrusive thoughts in perspective. “Check in with your beliefs about the importance of rest and leisure,” suggests Dr. Badali. If you have trouble enjoying a lunch break or a week’s holiday because you feel you should be doing something more ‘useful,’ it’s time to get your facts straight: “There’s plenty of research showing these breaks are part of a healthy lifestyle,” says Dr. Badali. Booking rest periods of even a few minutes into your daily schedule can help you relax, de-stress and find clarity.
6. You should never feel guilty for setting limits
Having clear guidelines or limits around how you would like to be treated by friends, family and colleagues honours your needs so that you feel safe and respected. “Setting boundaries is an area where I think guilt is most likely to pop up,” says Dr. Cohen. Some people struggle with boundaries because perfectionism is pushing them to want to do it all. Some may have a touch of FOMO (fear of missing out) that is spurring a desire for connection, excitement, and experiences, at all costs. Our identities can also be wrapped up in how much we’re doing for other people, which encourages us to self-sacrifice in order to care for our friends and family.
Learning to set better boundaries comes down to giving yourself permission to prioritize your own values, needs and wants so that you can let go of guilt. “Guilt can be a good teacher,” says Dr. Badali. “But it can also be a tormentor.”