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Saturday, March 3, 2012

Guilt and Self-Esteem

Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Have you ever noticed the correlation between ever-present guilt and your level of self-esteem? There is one, you know. If you are always feeling guilty or are just plain too hard on yourself all the time, it is bound to affect the overall way you see yourself as a worthy human being. My confidence has come a looong way in the last couple of years especially, but I have always been very hard on myself, and it's something I have to consciously fight in an effort not to let it cloud my perspective of myself. 

Can guilt ever be a positive thing? Well, yeah, within reason. If you're an average person just trying to do your best in the world, you need to try and look at yourself and your life more objectively. So you feel bad that you messed up. So you hurt someone's feelings that you love. So you love your dog so much that you feel guilty over something completely out of your control (which you'll read about in a moment). Congratulations: you have the ability to feel guilt, which means you are not a sociopath. :) Fear of guilt or regretting potential consequences can keep you out of trouble. But when taken to extremes, guilt is damaging and self-destructive. 
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Here are some of the ways guilt affects our self-esteem.

Guilt and Lack of Self-Esteem Create a Cycle of Even More Guilt and Even Less Self-Esteem.

If you have a lot of bottled-up guilt, chances are, you have low self-esteem, and if you have low self-esteem, chances are, you're more likely to let yourself feel unnecessarily guilty. 

One thing I find myself trying to do a lot with people is convincing them that they deserve to feel good about themselves in order to gain more self-confidence. I look at someone who is so wonderful and kind and good and wonder how they could not feel they deserve happiness, love, and they could keep making self-destructive choices in their lives because they unconsciously think that's the best that life holds for them. Maybe one reason for that is guilt in some form or another. I think a lot of people, deep down, don't feel they deserve good things in their lives, if they really break it down and look at it, and that really influences the decisions they make, some of which only lead to more guilt because of other things those decisions cause. You might need to do some pretty deep digging to discover the root of your guilt and lack of feeling deserving, but it’s the only way you’ll stop the cycle.

Irrational/Imagined Guilt Makes Us Feel Unnecessarily "Less Than."

I commented to my husband one day that I think I make up things to feel guilty about. I was talking about "Mom Guilt" when that realization hit me. If you are a parent, whether to animals or humans, you know what this is. You always wonder am I good I teaching them what they need...are they getting enough attention...what if I had done this or that differently. It's part of being a mother, even when you know you're doing your best. But I think I do sometimes take it to the extreme and pull things out of thin air to worry about and feel guilty over when really it's either 1) not even a real issue or 2) not something even remotely in my control anyhow. And you know what…if I’m honest with myself, I think feeling guilty, in a twisted way, makes me feel like a better mom…like it means I care more.

To this day, I have guilt over one of our dogs who passed away a couple of years ago. He had an incurable disease. But I still wonder if there was more I could have done. As much as I miss him terribly every day, what more could I have done, short of finding the cure myself in a lab? And that would have taken years, and he did not have years, unfortunately. See how guilt can often be a little irrational and misplaced when you step back and view it for what it really is? With another of our dogs who recently had amputation surgery due to paw cancer, once I put aside the guilt for getting his arm amputated (because it truly was the best option for curing him after consulting with four different vets, and trust me, he’s already not letting it keep him from doing what he wants in life!), suddenly I was thinking, "But we've never taken him to the beach!" Instead of focusing on the fact that we've spent thousands on surgeries for him over the years that we don't really have, simply because we love him so much and consider it our responsibility to do whatever it takes for him, and all the day-to-day love and affection he gets, I'm focusing on things I have not done for him. 

I won't go into a big religion discussion, but I will say there were nights as a young child when I'd lie awake crying and couldn't sleep because I wondered if my friends would die and go to hell if I didn't personally make sure they got “saved.” A lot of my beliefs have changed as an adult, and that kind of guilt is part of the reason for that. I don't believe that kind of heavy burden belongs on a child. Or an adult, frankly. Suffice it to say I believe in a much more loving God/Universe than that, and while I don't believe anything goes and everything is relative, I do think a lot of the things we obsess, worry over, and feel guilty about as human beings are petty and trivial and that we will realize how silly we were on the other side.  

Guilt Often Comes from the Drive to be the Perfect [Insert Title Here].

I've been mulling over this post for a few weeks, so I was thinking about guilt when I read Shybiker's post about the lists people make of things they regret when on their deathbed. As most of you know, my mom died young - it was 7 years ago this past Valentine's Day. That taught me very well to make the most of my life and to stop letting fear hold me back, to do everything I want to do while I have the ability so that I don't regret not doing it later. It was also a big part of why I wanted to develop as much healthy self-confidence as I could, because she didn't have it, and honestly, that is a huge waste. (Now I just have to stop feeling guilty over not developing more confidence/not doing all the things I wanted sooner, right? Just kidding.) Anyway, here is part of the comment I left:

That's a pretty powerful list. I am always making myself feel guilty about something or other; sometimes I will pull something out of thin air to feel guilty about that is really not worth my energy. So I think some of the things I "regret" really aren't as huge as I think they are. But, in general, I do try to have as good of a balance between family, friends, work, self, etc. as I can. I feel like I am juggling a whole lot of balls, and I feel like those I care about (except for baby, of course!) suffer sometimes because I can't give 100% to everybody all the time. But I do my best, and as long as I do that, I shouldn't have any regrets.

Sounds nice, right? So why do I still allow myself to have regrets then? There is only so much I can do as one imperfect human being who is a wife, mom, daughter, niece, friend, employee, blogger, and all the other many roles I play in my life. I cannot be all things to all people all the time. So why do I let myself feel guilty for not being able to be superhuman? We can and should try to make the best balance as we can, but we aren’t always going to be able to give everyone/everything a perfectly equal piece of the pie.

As I've said many times before, I don't want to teach my daughter that she has to be perfect. I lived with that self-imposed drive most of my life - hmm, sounds like maybe I still do a bit, and it always leaves me tired, guilty, and never feeling enough. I want her to know it's okay to make mistakes sometimes. Every time I'm even slightly irritable at home with my husband or pets, I feel guilty and terrible. (I am even feeling guilty right now that I'm admitting I ever get irritable with them.) But you know what? When my daughter is older, she will learn that being irritable is normal sometimes and doesn't make you a bad person and that Mom apologizes if she hurts anyone's feelings. I think it's not so much the mistake you make as the way you handle it afterward. Did you learn from it? Will you do your best not to let it happen again? Okay, then let’s move on.

No one is perfect, no matter how awesome their life may appear on Facebook, so stop the insane treadmill drive to be perfect already. Just be the best you that you can be and let go of the rest. 

Guilt Can Turn You Into a Martyr, Which Only Leads to More Guilt When You Actually Do Something for Yourself.

People act out in a variety of ways to get their individual needs met, and that alone can lead to guilt situations. And there should be no guilt for doing what you need to do for yourself to meet as many of your needs as possible, within normal reason and as long as you aren't demanding of others to do that for you. It is not selfish to have time for yourself. It is not selfish to be happy. It is not selfish to succeed. 

I decided to do a Google search for "guilt and self-esteem" when I was planning out this post. (Hey, next time someone Googles that, maybe this post will come up!) I found a couple things I really liked.

Not only do we feel guilty for not being good enough, but we also take on all our family's emotional pain and guilt that they have not been able to deal with in their lives. This causes us to sacrifice ourselves for other people rather than living our own life fully. We subconsciously decide that we can pay off our guilt by being in sacrifice to the people we love.

I had spent most of my life taking care of other's people needs and I have forgotten mine. For many years I played the role of a "good child," sometimes called: "Responsible Child" - "Family Hero." I realized that in doing so every time I have succeeded I felt guilty, I had left (in my own thinking) my family behind.

Bottom line...

If you are constantly dwelling on mistakes you've made, chances you didn't take, all the "what ifs" that leave you riddled with anxiety in addition to guilt, think about how that influences your overall opinion of yourself - not of how you look but who you are as a person. If you can't cut yourself a break, you may very well go through life feeling less than and unworthy. And let's face it: living with constant guilt is exhausting! When you let go of it, you literally breathe easier. Your whole body benefits, not just your emotions. It is what it is. Forgive yourself, let go of it, and just try to do better from that point forward without making yourself crazy. In general, most people do the best they can at the time. You have to decide that was enough.  

What do you need to let go of, right here, right now, so you can stop feeling guilty? Don't feel you have to answer such a personal question in a comment if you're not comfortable with that, though you can do it anonymously if you like, and maybe that will help hold you accountable. Either way, decide that you deserve to let go of it and start feeling better about who you are.

For me, in this particular moment in time, I’m going to go rejoin my family and choose not to feel guilty for taking the time to write this post. :) I also need to stop feeling guilty for not spelling out that this post is not geared toward people who are abusive or harmful to others. Wait…I just did it anyway.

P.S. If you also have “Mom Guilt,” you might want to check out these books. I haven’t read any of them, but they certainly sound up my alley!