Guilt. Five small letters that say so much. Guilt can motivate you to do things you might otherwise not do: call your mother; stop you from taking that flirting with a co-worker any further than mild banter, because you know a guilty conscience would ruin your relationship with your partner; ensure you pick up your child from the school gates on time. So far, so good.
Guilt, then, can help to keep us on the straight and narrow: for sure, it can prick our conscience, enabling us as human beings to take morally correct decisions. After all, who would wish to see a society where nobody felt any guilt whatsoever, wandering around like Pinocchio, unable to let conscience be their guide? Humans, probably uniquely amongst the animal kingdom, have developed the concept of guilt and conscience and this is just one of the many things which sets us apart from other species; our humanity if you like.
The problem comes, I believe, when guilt gets misused, bandied around like a stick to beat ourselves with. And although there are undoubtedly men out there who feel guilt too, I believe there’s a great guilt epidemic that threatens to strangle women in our culture. You know the type of guilt I’m referring to here. It’s not like my earlier examples, where not committing adultery or calling your mother are defined areas where your conscience should kick in and motivate you to act appropriately.
I’m talking about the gnawing, everyday guilt and self-doubt that women feel about tiny, seemingly insignificant worries. And this is where I suggest we lose men a little. I just don’t think they worry about such triviality as:
- I will feel so guilty if I don’t go to the gym on the way home from work;
- I feel guilty if I don’t put more in my colleague’s leaving collection, because everyone will think I’m a bad co-worker;
- I will feel so guilty if I don’t stay up all night baking cakes for my child’s school event, because I will look like a bad mother;
And finally, the biggest guilt-feeder of all:-
- I feel guilty about eating that second slice of chocolate cake.
Yes, the list of guilty goings-on is literally endless. If you are reading this and you are wondering why on earth anyone would worry about such trivial things, congratulations. You are a very sensible person, because really, why are we so obsessed with worrying about such inconsequential things? It seems obvious that a lot of this stems from worrying about what other people are thinking of us. Something I realised recently was that I would never treat a good friend the way I treat myself, often beating myself up about decisions I’ve made, whether now or in the past.
The more I thought about this idea, the more deeply it resonated with me, and it has started to affect the way I feel about guilt. What would I say to a friend who was worried she hadn’t baked lovely cookies for her daughter’s school bake sale? I would say: So what! Go buy some – nobody will know the difference – and who cares if they do? Would I EVER suggest that a good friend not have another piece of cake if she wanted one? No, of course not!
The idea that we would judge our closest friends as harshly as we judge ourselves seems alien to us. Yet, this is exactly what we put ourselves through on a daily basis. We really must stop this chastising and agonising over every decision, just in case other people don’t approve of it. Something I’ve come to realise is this: when you make a decision to take action, and you act in a self-assured way, other people are generally either in awe of how you manage to conduct yourself so well – or not interested in the slightest.
All that worry we pour into debating how this or that action will be viewed by others ignores the simple fact that nobody has time to worry about what we are doing anyway! Yes, that’s right. Because while you’re dithering around worrying about what other people are thinking, those same other people are worrying about what everyone else is thinking about them. Ironic, right? So, my best advice to you, from somebody who grapples with this huge issue of guilt daily, is to let yourself off the hook and show yourself some love and respect. Essentially, to treat yourself like your own best friend.