Does Guilt Have a Message for You?

istock_000005408863xsmall.jpgDo you live in a perpetual state of guilt? Are you someone who, no matter how many right things you do today, there will always be that one other item that got away from you – and so you feel guilty that you didn’t accomplish all you set out to?

Sometimes we’ll spend a full seven or eight hours chipping away at the work on our to-do list. But then, instead of reveling in a well deserved break, in our minds we’re already barreling ahead to the next item on the agenda. Where we should be congratulating ourselves and taking a rest, we engage in a merciless self-blaming session.

“Sure, I made some great headway at the office… but now I’m exhausted and have nothing left for the kids.”

“I could really use a nap after the day I’ve had. But I told (insert name of your partner) we’d stay up and watch a movie together…” (and then while you’re trying to keep your eyes open during the movie, your mind flashes to that credit card payment that you forgot to pay… and another round of self-admonishments).

Let’s say you agreed to host a Boy Scouts gathering at your home, or maybe you’ve offered to bring cupcakes to the bake sale at school tomorrow. Do you ever find yourself just wishing it over and done with… hurrying through the motions, feeling resentful of the time lost… and then alternating that with a full-blown episode of guilt and self-blame?

Maybe you wonder, why can’t I just slow down and be mindful of this experience and the pleasure it brings? Spending a half an hour cooking something delicious should be an enjoyable variation on your day… not a nuisance or a burden. Giving of your time to make a difference in your child’s life should leave you with a happy and peaceful feeling. We know this, and it makes us feel badly when we feel less than enthused for the obligation at hand.

Do you feel guilty that you’re often grouchy and irritable, when you should be delighting in the small but meaningful activities that add spice and variety to your routine?

In these types of situations, guilt may have a message for you. You may think that the message is “Do more, be more.” But the real message behind the guilty feelings is “Slow down. You’re trying to accomplish much more than is humanly possible.”

Lots of people can’t understand why they live to the best of their ability and yet it’s still not enough. Their conscience tugs on them to sustain the effort and push into overdrive.

Are you plagued with ‘shoulds’ in your mind? “Work a full, 8 or even 10 hour day. Eat right. Don’t forget to exercise so you can stay healthy and fit. Have dinner with your family. Get involved and be present for the milestones in your child’s life. Be a good neighbor.”

Today’s unrealistic standards demand that we keep on going when there’s no strength left in us and no hours remaining in our day. And with that kind of pressure comes the inevitable pangs of guilt – gnawing away at you for all the loose ends left dangling in your whirlwind lifestyle.

Even if you were to accomplish whatever, in your estimation, is a reasonable daily load… you’d still end up disappointed with yourself. The reason is that the expectation bar has been set way too high. In this day and age, it’s about quantity, when it needs to be about quality.

That’s why if you were to fold and iron the laundry, write up the report that’s due tomorrow at work, take Barkley out for his morning run, prepare a 4-course meal, drive the kids all over town for their various appointments, pay your phone bill and call your mother today… the guilt would still be nagging at you.

And the feeling is there because although your day is brimming with activity… you can’t possibly be giving each item the time, attention and care it needs to be really enjoyable and fulfilling while giving it your very best.

If you, like many of us, want to silent the guilt-inducing voices in your head, then here’s what you have to do. Hear the guilt for what it’s really saying. Stop trying to cram so much in your days. Recognize that it’s not about being a super-human – it’s about being present, mindful and fully aware during every experience.

Realize that the things worth doing are worth doing well… and everything else is gravy. What ways can you alter your schedule to make room for more substance and less fluff?

Thanks to Colloquium for including this article in the Carnival of Family Life.

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