But I Feel So Doggone Guilty
False guilt sneaks in on the coattails of fear and insecurity. Distinguishing the genuine article (a helpful behavioral motivator) from the counterfeit (a blend of poison and quicksand) can help women to energize themselves and their families to accomplish good things.
If possession of a Y chromosome leads to scratching and spitting and an inability to find things in the fridge, then a pair of X chromosomes must lend itself to remembering birthdays, matching socks and feeling guilty.
I generalize, but the guilt thing really does seem to hit women harder and more persistently than men. Maybe this is because men, as a rule, establish better boundaries than women do? After all, how easy can it be to set up a perimeter once you’ve carried another human being inside your own body? How do you compare a finite job, even one involving challenging tasks and long hours, with nurturing and care-taking which are also difficult but never really end?
I ask these questions, not to malign men, many of whom are great partners and terrific fathers, but to point out the way we women hurt ourselves—and encourage others to hurt us—when we can’t get guilt under control.
Real guilt—the only kind worth paying attention to—is connected with actually doing something wrong. False guilt—a cheap and nasty knock-off—is connected more with fear of failure and insecurity than with any actual behavioral standard.
Let’s look at this in practical terms.
Women who return to nursing school often speak of feeling guilty about what they’re putting their families through. Partners join the chorus and grouse about changes in scheduling and any new demands put on them. Kids fuss that mom isn’t constantly and instantly available. The women themselves complain of feeling pulled in too many directions, especially when clinicals start, and some of them quit.
Are they actually doing anything wrong? Yes and no. Most adults grasp the idea that having one parent return to school is serious business and ought to be a family decision. But they don’t always see that making such a drastic move will require family-level support. The wrong that a mom in this situation might do is to try to take the whole load on her shoulders or to share the responsibilities but then feel awful about what she is doing to her poor husband and children.
If she communicates regret that her "selfish" choices (as opposed to their family decision) are causing her loved ones to suffer, they will suffer and sign her name to their “pain.” If, on the other hand, this is a group (or at least a couple) decision and Mom gives her family the message that they are pulling together toward an important goal, one that will eventually benefit all of them, she sets a tone of camaraderie, capability, appreciation and strength.
What stops so many women from taking this positive and energizing approach? That old bugaboo, false guilt. Fear of failure means it’s easier for a woman to hide behind (and blame) her family’s expectations than to work toward healthy changes for everyone involved. And insecurity about her value as person can paralyze her if she fears that only her service matters. With the exhaustion this kind of toxic thinking generates, she might as well be slogging through quicksand.
Think of a single mom who needs to educate herself and her kids out of poverty. If she telegraphs the message to her children that she is damaging them at the same time as she is saving them, how can they help but be confused? Better they should all pile in her bed and laugh and cry and share their hopes for better times together than that she should pull away, embarrassed and ashamed that she isn’t doing enough for them.
How about a middle-aged woman who wants to bridge from LPN to RN and maybe even BSN but she’s so accustomed to putting everyone else’s needs first that she can’t seem to find the money or the time. What if she says, “Enough, already. I really want this and I’m going to ask the people I love to help me make it a priority.”
In World War II, it fell to the women of Great Britain (whose menfolk were in the military) to hold their families together during the Blitz. From early September, 1940, until May, 1941, Luftwaffe bombers rained destruction down on London and other major cities, night after night after night. Because there weren't enough air raid shelters, the tube (subway) station platforms filled every evening with bundled up people, hauling blankets and pillows down to cots and bunks that had been put there for them to sleep on.
Had the women wrung their hands and moped about how awful everything was, their children would have felt tortured and miserable. There are always a few spoilsports in every crowd, but, for the most part, the women turned the ordeal into an adventure, playing games with the kids, pooling rations, singing popular songs and hymns, and tucking their little ones into the makeshift beds as if they were in their own rooms. Every morning, they gathered their belongings and trooped up the stairs to see if their homes were still standing. And every evening, they marched back down again.
After eight months of this nightly pounding and six years total of the war there were many children who had experienced hardship, but they felt a part of something significant and took pride in knowing that they had “done their bit.”
Because the trials these women and their families endured were caused by someone else, they didn’t have to waste time being double-minded. Unhampered by guilt and insecurity, they were able to motivate and mobilize their families to get through tougher times than many of us will ever realize. Failure was simply not an option.
Theirs was an external foe. But for too many women today, false guilt is an inner confusion that saps their strength and turns them into their own worst enemy.
How wonderful would it be if we could finally learn to reject false guilt and set the bar just high enough for us to get over it.Last edit by Joe V on Apr 18, '16
Dec 5, '11Another great one. Definitely spoke to mixed messages swirling around in my head. Thank you for helping me call attention to it.Dec 6, '11Fantastic article. I can relate. My husband was my rock during nursing school. He never complained, he carried the financial burden alone so that I could, in his words "do my job" of nursing school. He was amazing, yet I still felt guilty because I wasn't cooking supper for him or keeping the house as clean as I felt I should. Even though he told me time and time again these things didn't matter (and picked up a lot of that slack himself), I still placed that false guilt on myself. Thanks for putting into words what I've been thinking, even as some of these same feelings continue into my nursing career.Dec 9, '11awesome and how true!! I divorced my husband while in nursing school and my son and I got through it. But it was HARD to let go of the guilt at not having time for everything.Dec 13, '11I never even thought about "false guilt". It makes perfect sense. As women, sometimes we just do it to ourselves.Dec 13, '11I think many of us females are born with "guilt-shaped shoulders." It stands to reason. We want to take care of everyone and when we can't, we feel like we have somehow failed.
Nothing a good false-guilt-ectomy can't cure.
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