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Letting Go of Guilt

WebMD Feature from "Good Housekeeping" Magazine

By Amy Keyishian and Hagar Scher

Good Housekeeping Magazine LogoFeeling big shame over little things? Here, some simple ways to get over it.

Exhausted by work and kids, I was desperate for sleep-but every time I closed my eyes, I saw Elisa's face. I'd e-mailed a group of friends about getting together, and she responded that she would love to see me when she "got back from surgery." What surgery? Oh, just the hysterectomy I'd never heard about because I'd been so bad at keeping in touch. Now I felt guilty. Of course, that's not unusual-I often stay up late fretting about something I've done wrong. My offense doesn't have to be huge (no, I haven't murdered anyone lately); I'm bothered by small things, like wriggling out of a baby shower, leaving wet laundry in the machine overnight, and being less of a friend than I'd like to be. If you're nodding your head, you know exactly what I mean.

Here's the upside of feeling the way we do: Guilt acts as our inner watchdog, says Margaret Clark, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Yale University who studies guilt and close relationships. We have responsibilities to other people, and if we fail to perform as we should, we feel crummy. "In a healthy situation, guilt prompts us to correct our actions or express our regrets," says Clark.

But it's possible to be too hard on yourself-and yes, the female sex is especially adept at this kind of self-sabotage. "Women are more focused on other people than men are," says Vicki Helgeson, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Carnegie-Mellon University who studies gender. "We feel guilty if we do something that affects someone else, while men are more concerned with the impact others have on them."

Want to stop playing the self-blame game? Here's how to handle those squirm-inducing situations in all the major aspects of your life.


Does this sound familiar?
- Your husband dozed off at someone's wedding.
- You're invited to two events on Saturday night-and there's no way you can do both.
- You've missed five turns at carpooling.
- You ducked an acquaintance at the supermarket.
- You made a stupid joke that offended someone.

One woman's experience
"I wrote-but never mailed-a thank-you note for the most beautiful baby present I've ever received," says Jennifer, 38, a homemaker in Falls Church, Virginia. "It was a hand-knit sweater. The friend who made it lives overseas, so I didn't know the correct postage, and with a newborn, I never had time to find out. The note is still stuck in the pages of my address book-and the ‘baby' is now four."

Advice: Apologize
When you've simply missed the boat, there's just one thing to do: Say you're sorry. "Jennifer should mail the thank-you note now," says Clark. "She's saying, ‘I had too much responsibility and couldn't do this.' That's fine-but in recent years, it's embarrassment that has stopped her from acting on the problem." Popping the original thank-you into an envelope along with another note admitting that she's been feeling bad about this for ages will not just alleviate Jennifer's guilt-it'll make the knitter understand what happened and feel appreciated at last.

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