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Banish Your Guilt Demons

By Stephanie Marston

Most of us are caught in a tug-of-war between who we think we should be and who we are; between what we want to do and what we're actually able to do. In other words, we're at the mercy of our guilt demons. Our feelings of guilt often prevent us from taking care of ourselves. First and foremost, we have to have realistic expectations. I'm talking about what you can reasonably expect of yourself.

Guilt is a major roadblock to taking care of ourselves. There's always a list of things that have to be done that takes precedence over attending to our needs. Then there's the fear of disappointing someone if you occasionally make yourself a priority. But stop and consider for a moment: when you put yourself last on the list and allow your guilt to run your life, the person that you continually disappoint is yourself.

Here are three sure-fire steps you can take to banish your guilt demons once and for all.

  1. Recognize the kind of guilt you have and its purpose.
    Guilt is an emotional warning sign. Its purpose is to let us know either that we've done something wrong or to help us confront our unrealistic standards. Guilt is productive and healthy when our behavior has been offensive or hurtful to others or ourselves. If we feel guilty for saying something offensive to another person, or for regularly engaging in 80-hour workweek at the expense of our family, that's a warning sign with a purpose. Your guilt is telling you to change your behavior or suffer negative consequences with your friends or family. This is kind of guilt serves a purpose. It is trying to help redirect your moral or behavioral compass. If we continue to ignore our guilt we do so at our own risk and with dire consequences.

    However, guilt often arises even when our behavior doesn't need to be reexamined nor changed. For example, a lot of first-time mothers feel badly about going back to work part-time, fearful it may cause unknown damage to their child's normal development. That's simply not the case in most situations. Most children have a normal, healthy development, even when both parents work. There's nothing to feel guilty about, and yet we still do. This is known as "toxic" or "unhealthy" guilty because it serves no rational, productive purpose. This kind of guilt is based on unrealistic expectations and standards.

  2. Confront your unrealistic standards and expectations.
    Most of us have an idealized image of what good parents, career men/women, good daughters/sons, good husbands/wives or boyfriends/girlfriends should be—we are haunted by these images of perfection. Toxic guilt tends to place you in a perpetual state of self-doubt, causing you to constantly question your needs and motivations. Rather than confront the comparison between our idealized images and our actual self, many of us feel inadequate and guilt-ridden because we can't match up to our own impossibly high standards.

    The toxic guilt that drives overwork and overextending yourself has one basic principle: You are not worthy of having time for yourself. You must work and produce or care for other to have any value. It's time to confront your demon by staring it in the face.

    For example whenever you hear yourself saying things like, I must always be responsible, conscientious and giving to others. Or, I should never put my needs and myself first. Or, good employees never say "no" to their boss. Or, good employees always work overtime. Or, good parents always put their children's needs first. You know you're in dangerous territory. All of these statements are impossible to live up to.

    This is when you need to get real about what you can actually do. We simply can't act more generously than we feel, give more than we have to give and continually push ourselves beyond our limits. It's time to adjust your standards to match your current reality and what you can realistically do.

  3. Apologize and/or change your behavior.
    If your guilt is healthy guilt-take action and work to remedy the situation. While many of us are gluttons for self-punishment, ongoing guilt interferes with our ability to reduce our stress and make time for what truly matters.

    Keep in mind that it's easy enough to apologize to someone whom you've offended by a careless remark. It's a little more difficult to not only recognize how your 80-hour-a-week career may be harming your family and to adjust your work schedule (assuming that there were legitimate reasons for working 80-hours a week in the first place).

    Accept and acknowledge your inappropriate behavior, make your apologies, and then move on. The sooner we "learn the lesson" the sooner our guilt will vanish.

Healthy guilt is one of those emotions that alert us to something important. There is usually a kernel of truth when we feel guilty. Focus on the guilt that causes loved ones or friends harm. But remember to keep a healthy skepticism in relation to your guilt.

Rather than simply succumb to your guilt demon, the next time you feel guilty, ask yourself, is my guilt trying to teach me something reasonable and helpful about my behavior? Or is it just an irrational response to a situation in which I have unrealistic expectations about myself and what I can do? The answer to that question will be your first step to helping you better cope with guilt.

Stephanie is an acclaimed speaker and author. She speaks from experience. Stephanie is the go to expert for those who seek to create quality driven lives. Stephanie is America's foremost life balance expert. Her new CD program, 30 Days to Sanity contains powerful, innovative, practical tools to reduce stress, balance work and family and make time for what truly matters. Stephanie is the author of 'Life Lessons for Women: 7 Essential Ingredients for a Balanced Life' and 'If Not Now, When? Reclaiming Ourselves at Midlife.'
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