7 ways to manage your self-sacrificing guilt issues

If you've ever heard yourself saying, or thinking... 'But I'd feel bad if I didn't'

'I feel so guilty if I take time for myself'

'Looking after myself is so selfish when there are other people less fortunate than me!'

Then, this one's definitely for you!

The problem with guilt is that it's such a motivating factor. Think about it, we start diets after Christmas because we feel guilty about eating and drinking too much. (Well, personally I don't feel guilt around this, but I know enough people who do). When we've let a friend down, we usually go out of our way to make it up to them, motivated partly by guilt. When we say no and see the puppy dog eyes, or hear the disappointment in their voices, we feel guilty, and our timid no becomes an overbearing yes.

But there are two main types of guilt. Healthy guilt, and unhealthy guilt.

Healthy guilt - I just dropped my sister's baby and I haven't told her.

Unhealthy guilt - I just spent all day helping a friend and she wants me to go with her to this thing she doesn't want to go to on her own. I really don't want to go but I'm going to feel so guilty if I don't go, because I'll have let her down.

What we're looking at in this post is the unhealthy guilt that pokes its head up when we want to say no. It brings with it a set of obligations and expectations. And as passionate women who want to make meaningful change in the world, we often place our obligations and expectations on ourselves and they're sometimes unrealistic.

Other times they're expectations placed on us because we like to present an image of ourselves which is indestructible and super-woman like. 

But sometimes, let's be honest, people just flat out take the piss out of our good nature. You know what they say, if you need something done, ask a busy person.

And guilt, it can be such a physical thing. It can drive you to feeling really ill, it eats away at you, and we often think that we won't get rid of it until we do the very thing we feel guilty about not doing.

Talk about a vicious cycle.

And here's the thing. Guilt traps us. It keeps us in a perpetual cycle of stuckness between fighting to be a good person, and going with what we really think/want.

Good person tug (that sounded so much less wrong in my head): Even though I really don't want to, if I do it, then that will really help them. I'd feel so bad if I didn't.

What we really think tug: I'm exhausted, I can't do anything more for anyone. I just want to go home, have peace and quiet and just be left alone for a bit. Oh, but I'll feel really guilty if I don't do it.

Guilt tug:  No, I have to do it. I might not want to, but it's the right thing to do, and I can't just say no because I'm exhausted, that would make me really selfish. 

Hence guilt usually wins in a battle between our want to be a good person, and what we really need.

As passionate people, and especially as passionate people who want to change the world for the better, we've got high expectations, firm principles and a moral code which we abide.

And as women, I think it's fair to say traditionally, we're used to putting our needs last. We're used to making sure everyone and everything else is okay before we take our own slice.

If you fuse those together, you've got the perfect recipe for a guilt martini.

So, what can I do about it, I hear you say. Well here's some pointers/excercises you can apply to your own situation, but first of all, I just want to make an aside.

There are numerous articles out there that tell us to simply let go of guilt, like it's that easy. Bullshit. If it was that easy, therapists would be out of a job, we'd all be doing what we fucking well liked, and we probably wouldn't burn out in the first place. Guilt isn't something that goes overnight, but with work and understanding, we can start to manage it and transform it.

So here goes:-

1. Acknowledge guilt for how heavy it feels and how much it has to do with our mindset. By acknowledging that mindset shifts take a long time, and rewiring our brains takes a lot of work, takes the overwhelming pressure to get it sorted right now.

2. Watch out for when guilt shows up - when we become more aware of when we feel guilt, we can start to identify what kind of things trigger it. Is there a theme? Is it to do with work? Is it to do with particular family members? Looking out for it and identifying what triggers it goes a big way in terms of understanding it. And when you understand it, you can try to adapt it.

3. When you start to feel guilty, take yourself out of the situation. What I mean by that, is run through the situation as if it was a problem one of your best friends came to you with. What would you say to them? Would they need to feel guilty?And try and take your own advice. This is a great exercise for seeing for yourself just how high the expectations you place on yourself are.

4. Find or create something that reminds you of how good a person you are, because you really are! Whether it's a list of things you've done that make you feel good, or a keepsake someone has given you, keep hold of it when the guilt sets in and let that pull you out of the vicious cycle.

5. Take some time for yourself, and when you're better rested, think about it again. Chances are you may have changed perspective after giving yourself time to replenish and rejuvenate.

6. Say fuck it, and move on. More about this approach to life in a blog post to come, but for now, let me tell you, those two words work wonders for all situations.

Next time someone asks you something and you desperately want to say no, but yes is on the tip of your tongue (because guilt has set in), take a couple of seconds and just breathe. Ask yourself is this really what you want?

If not, politely decline, don't go overboard telling the person you'll make it up to them (cue more guilt at a later date) and follow your gut.

After all, like someone wise once told me, 'If you can't look after yourself, how are you going to be able to help anyone else?'

It's not arrogant or selfish to put yourself first. Remember that.