If you skipped the gym or forgot to phone your mother this week, you are probably feeling guilty right now.
Especially, it seems, if you are a woman.
A survey has found that more than 96 per cent of women feel guilty at least once a day, while for almost half, the feeling strikes up to four times a day.
Dubbed the GAT (guilty all the time) generation, the study found women beat themselves up daily about their friendships, relationships, work and body shape.
It also discovered that almost half of respondents were kept awake at night by guilt, while three quarters said they had experienced more guilt since giving birth.
Why Do Women Feel More Guilty?
Why are women more prone to feel guilt? The answer probably lies in socialization. Across societies, women and girls have been socialized for thousands of years to get along with others, not hurt anybody’s feelings, and take care of loved ones. In many (but not all) families, women take more responsibility for staying in touch with relatives and friends, keeping up with everybody’s schedules, and keeping the household functioning effectively.
Is Guilt Healthy or Unhealthy?
Is guilt healthy or unhealthy? It can be either—or both. Healthy feelings of guilt motivate you to live according to your authentic values, which, in turn, can improve your relationships with others, since you are more likely to treat them with respect and do your fair share. However, unnecessary or excessive feelings of guilt can also be a psychological burden that interferes with your emotions and quality of life.
What You Can Do
If you are prone to feeling the unhealthy kind of guilt—in which you are always beating yourself up for not doing enough—use the tips and tools below to set yourself free. It takes a lot of practice and deliberate re-thinking to change an entrenched pattern of guilt, so be patient with yourself:
1. Look for the evidence.
If you feel guilty because you’re “not doing enough” for your kids, partner, or family, list all the things that you regularly do for them. Then, keep the list in your purse or wallet to pull out when guilt rears its head.
2. Be direct and get more information.
Ask the people you think you’re neglecting whether they actually feel neglected. Consider whether they have a tendency to expect too much and not take enough responsibility for themselves (e.g., teenagers who expect you to pick up after them). Then, think about how an outside observer would view the situation. If you conclude that you really aren’t doing enough, then come up with some solutions or compromises that balance everybody’s needs.
3. Appreciate yourself and all that you do.
Write a “self-gratitude” diary at the end of every day, noting at least three things you did that day that furthered your goals or helped someone you care about. At the end of the week, read what you’ve written. Guilt and perfectionism have a negative bias. They make you pay attention to what you’re not doing right. By writing down what you actually did, you can overcome this bias and force yourself to focus on your accomplishments.
4. Think how you would see things if the roles were reversed.
Would you think your friend or partner wasn’t doing enough, given all they had going on? We often find it easy to be compassionate and understanding with others but are too harsh on ourselves. By deliberately taking the other person’s perspective, you’ll likely see your situation in a more objective light.
5. Curb the “black and white” thinking.
Are you thinking about the situation in all-or-nothing terms? Do you think that if you’re not the perfect partner (or daughter, or parent) you must be the worst one on the planet? Try to find the gray amid all that black and white. Consider other ways of seeing the situation. Try to judge your efforts in context, rather than always expecting perfection.
6. Look for the emotions underneath the guilt.
Might the guilt be masking other feelings like anger, intimidation, or resentment? If you’re in a relationship with a very needy person or a narcissist, you or your partner may convince you that you’re being selfish by setting limits and saying no. Over time, your guilt and inner conflict may actually be masking resentment.
7. Decide how much you’re willing and able to do.
If you honestly feel that you haven’t done enough for your partner or family member, then make an authentic commitment to taking specific caring or helpful actions going forward. If you can’t do all the housework in the evening, decide which pieces you can commit to doing. Then, communicate this willingness to your partner in a proactive way.