How did we know? Well, if you're a woman, it's sort of a no-brainer. Studies show that for women, feeling guilty is a major pastime. There’s the 2010 survey of more than 1,300 women in the UK, in which 96% of them admitted to feeling guilt daily — and nearly half reported that they feel guilty about something up to four times per day. And then, there's the 2010 research from Spain’s University of Basque County, which showed that Western women experienced guilt at a “significantly higher” rate than men.
Even though the University of London’s Centre for Longitudinal Studies 40-year study found that since the mid-nineties, children born to working mothers fared just as well as those who were born to moms who stayed at home during early years, different research from the University of Toronto found that women reportedly feel more guilt than men when work bleeds into their home lives.
“I think with women, the case is that we beat ourselves up for all the things we're not doing and feel we should be doing. We often feel like we can’t enjoy ourselves because we’re being pulled in too many directions,” says Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “And that guilt can become really self-crippling.”
Not that we should aim to do away with the emotion altogether: Feeling bad about something we’ve done or regretting when we’ve hurt someone can be constructive. It prevents us from doing really bad, psychopathic shit.
And, psychologist Guy Winch, author of Emotional First Aid — a book that devotes an entire chapter to the phenomenon of guilt — agrees, saying, “Guilt is great in small doses because it serves as a warning system. It says you’re about to do something or have done something that violates your personal code. So, it’s a signal flashing in your brain that says, ‘Um, maybe not.’ In that sense, it’s a great thing.”
“But, guilt can do a number on us in bigger ways than we expect,” he continues, “and when it’s excessive, it’s a really bad thing.”
What’s more, guilt can be incredibly distracting and — here’s the key — make it more difficult to enjoy life, according to both Winch and Krauss Whitbourne. With so much evidence showing that lots of women are racked with guilt — and that this guilt can be physically, emotionally, and psychologically damaging — it’s time we give ourselves a break and enjoy life a bit more. Sounds liberating, right? Here’s how to stop the madness when it comes to guilt:
“Being able to distinguish when our guilt is valid is actually really important,” Winch says. “If the guilt is valid, do something about it with some sort of atonement. But, if you’re just imposing a guilt trip on yourself, then you need to think about it differently. And, you need to learn to purge yourself of the guilt.”
To figure out whether your guilt is valid or not, Winch suggests trying this exercise: Get somewhere quiet where you can focus and close your eyes. Think about the scenario that caused you to feel guilty and reverse the roles so you are the person who was at the receiving end of your actions.
If you left a person’s party early and you’re feeling guilty about it, for example, imagine that you were hosting the party and someone else left early, after apologizing for having to get home to the kids and making a gracious exit. Be sure to take time with the exercise so you can conjure up as much detail and context as to what lead up to the thing you’re feeling guilty about; The more context you can place, the better your should-I-feel-guilty assessment will be.
“You really have to put yourself through the exercise. Not just think of the moment, but what preceded it. Give the full story,” Winch says. So, include details like whether the guest showed up on time, mingled nicely, and brought a hostess gift. By putting yourself in the other position, it should become clear whether your guilt is warranted or you’re being too hard on yourself.
If Your Guilt Is Valid, Banish It By Making Your Restitution Count
Sometimes our guilt is valid. But, what can often happen for guilt-prone people is that we will apologize for what we did, but still feel guilty for the hurt we caused. What gives? Winch says that in most of these situations, it’s because our apology sucks. And, that keeps the guilt going.
“Research shows that we’re absolutely terrible at apologizing,” he continues. “The most important ingredient we tend to skip — and it’s the most active ingredient in an apology — is a statement of empathy. If we want the person to really believe we are sorry, we have to really convey that we get what we did. We have to talk about what the implications were and accurately describe the impact of our actions on the other person.”
The payoff of a good apology? We’re more likely to be freed from our guilt.
“When we really feel that the other person forgave us, then we don’t continue to feel guilty,” Winch says.
For many women, a self-induced guilt trip can occur when we feel we aren’t doing enough — like when that voice in our heads tell us we should be studying for the LSATs and preparing a stellar dinner at the same time. In times like these, Krauss Whitbourne suggests a way to prevent guilt: “Make a mental checklist of the things that you are doing right,” she says. This can serve as way of thwarting the negative self-talk that can spur guilty feelings.
Focus On The Here And Now
It’s easy to think that you should be playing with your kid when you’re working. And, it’s just as easy to think you should be working when you’re playing with your kid. But, being otherwise preoccupied with what you think you should be doing just creates a lose-lose situation, because you can never really enjoy much of anything at all.
To avoid sending yourself on a never-ending guilt trip, Krauss Whitbourne suggests getting in the moment and devoting yourself to the task at hand. “You do have to practice being in the moment — not having your mind race to where you should be, could be, or aren't. You have to pay attention and slow things down,” she says.
The same goes for making ourselves feel bad for engaging in so-called guilty pleasures. “If you’re constantly chipping away at your self-esteem by monitoring what you’re doing at all times, then that’s a negative thing,” she says. Instead, by focusing on the task, activity, or conversation at hand, you are creating an opportunity for enjoyment, not anguish. After all, as Krauss Whitbourne points out, “If you’re going to engage in a guilty pleasure, you might as well enjoy it.”
So, part of ridding ourselves of unnecessary guilt is owning up to what we like and enjoying what makes us happy — even if that means unabashedly blazing through Toll House recipes while listening to Taylor Swift from time to time. Cookies, anyone?