Letting Go of Guilt
By Amy Keyishian and Hagar Scher
Feeling 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
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
- 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."
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.