How To Make Guilt Work For You

How often do you feel guilty?

A recent poll of parents found that both moms and dads feel guilt an average of 23 times per week. (Wow, right?) How about this stat – another survey of women found that moms feel guilt EVERY SINGLE DAY.

What about you? Are you in the guilty-every-single-day club? (It’s not really a club you would have joined on purpose, is it?) While you probably can’t get out of your membership, guilt doesn’t have to make you miserable. In today’s blog, and in our current episode of GrooveTV, I’ll teach you how to make guilt work for you.

Step 1: Understand the science of guilt.

Before we talk about how to manage guilt, let’s talk about why it’s important for you to take control of it. We begin with the obvious. Guilt feels terrible. (But you already knew that, right?)

Unfortunately, it gets much worse than just feeling bad. Guilt produces a stress response in your body, which weakens your immune system, reduces your libido, and MAKES YOU FAT. (I have your attention now, don’t I?)

There is science to how this happens. When your guilt is triggered, your body releases cortisol, which is a stress hormone. Cortisol is designed to help you with the flight part of a fight-or-flight response. But when you don’t really need to run from the saber toothed tiger (because he’s only chasing you in your head) you basically jack-up your biochemistry. (That’s a scientific description.)

As you’re obsessing about how awful you are, your body is pumping out cortisol like a champ. This impacts your insulin, which causes you to store fat. And guess where your new stress fat gets stored?

You guessed it. It goes right around your middle, (like a totally not-adorable spare tire). Even worse, some of your new blubber becomes the deep internal kind (called visceral fat), and that increases your risk for heart disease and breast cancer.

Are we on the same page about the extreme level of seriousness we’re dealing with now? Living with guilt isn’t just making you feeling bad. It’s making you sick, sexless and fat. It’s time to do something about it, don’t you think?

Step 2: Get with your guilt pattern.

We need you to start looking at your guilt when it comes calling. Your instinct will be to look away because it makes you uncomfortable, or to wallow because you find it overwhelming. You’ll need to overcome these impulses, and learn to meet your guilt head on.

If you haven’t had a lot of practice engaging with your emotions, this can feel intimidating at first, but you’re strong enough to do it. (For a little extra help on working with your feelings, check out my blog on how to deal with disappointment.)

Here’s the thing, you’re already wasting emotional cycles on feeling guilty. I want you to redirect the energy you’ve been using to obsess. Moving forward, when you feel guilt, instead of going down the rabbit hole, decide to use your guilt instead. It has something to teach you.

All guilt has a pattern. Your power to change things lives in your ability to isolate your personal formula. Once you know how guilt plays out in your life, you can make adjustments where you need to. A guilt pattern looks like this.

Trigger + Guilt Type = Response

We’ll look at triggers and guilt types right now, and in step 3 we’ll talk response. First triggers, which are just like they sound. A trigger is the thing that moves you into guilty thinking.

Triggers are almost always directly related to something someone else says to you (and what you make that mean), or by something you say to yourself and the meaning you associate to that.

We want to identify your triggers, because then you can get proactive. You can manage your life so that you meet your triggers less often, and you can prepare strategies for how you’ll respond in triggering situations. (Because some triggers can’t be avoided.)

You might even notice that a specific person is a trigger for you. While this is difficult, it’s common. If you’re in this situation, you’ll need to either spend less time around that person, or set some boundaries.

Once you’ve named your trigger, we categorize your guilt into buckets, because that helps us figure out what to do with it. We work with seven of them.

Bucket One: Mom guilt.
Need I say more? The moment you gave birth you adopted a permanent pattern of guilt, didn’t you? If you’re like most women, pretty much everything that has to do with your kids makes you feel guilty.

Are you doing too much, or too little? Will they fall behind on the performance scale because you feed them so much fast food? Will they be scarred for life because they saw you lose your temper?

Mom guilt has to do with your rules. What do you believe you have to do to be a good mom? Your answer to that question contains your rules on motherhood, and if you’re like most women your rules are WAY TOO HARD.

Bucket Two: Should guilt.
The world will tell you who you should be and how you should live your life if you let it. Should guilt is about trying to live up to other people’s rules so you’ll be accepted. Unfortunately, living by other people’s expectations is emotionally heavy. It produces resentment, resignation, and disdain, and it creates a kind of low-grade anxiety where you constantly feel like you’re failing.

Bucket Three: Time guilt.
You will never have enough time. If you allow it, there will always be more asked of you than you can deliver on. So you must learn to prioritize and say no. What’s more, you’re even going to have to make trade-offs between your priorities. (Think time with loved ones vs. time working out or going for your dream.) You can have it all, but not all at once.

Bucket Four: Disappointing others guilt.
As you begin to prioritize and say no, you’re going to disappoint people. In fact, every time you use your voice, speak your truth, make requests, and set boundaries you run the risk of letting someone down.

When you’re dealing with this type of guilt it helps to remember that the only thing worse than letting someone else down, is letting yourself down. If it costs you too much (physically, spiritually, financially, or emotionally) to say yes to something, you must learn to say no.

Bucket Five: Money guilt.
In one of the surveys we talked about earlier, 57% of moms said they felt guilty for spending money on themselves. In fact, most moms put themselves dead last on their financial list, if they make it at all.

It’s okay to put yourself after your kids. It’s not okay to ignore your needs. Being a mom is no joke, and it’s arguably the most important job you’ll ever have. You’ve got to be in top form to do it in a meaningful way. That requires you to make investments in your personal and professional development, education, grooming, special interests, and even your relaxation. Mamas need love too.

Bucket Six: Misalignment.
This bucket asks you to change your behavior. I call it good guilt, because it’s constructive. It shows you where you’ve behaved outside of your own code of conduct. Maybe you did something you shouldn’t have done, or you failed to follow through on something you really should have followed through on.

Whatever the act, misalignment means you need to make a change. It does not mean you’re a bad person, but if you feel like you are, please refer to our seventh bucket.

Bucket Seven: That’s not guilt. That’s shame.
When you believe something is wrong with you (vs. what you did) that is shame. Author, teacher, and shame researcher, Dr. Brene Brown, makes the important distinction that guilt is about your behavior while shame is about who you think you are.

When guilt has you questioning your value as a person, you’re not dealing with guilt anymore. You’re dealing with shame, and shame must be handled. It’s emotional malignancy, and it will destroy your life if you pretend it’s not there.

Step 3: Grow with it.

That’s a lot of guilt for one girl to deal with, isn’t it? And man, who knew that sneaky guy shame would come into the picture, right? It’s okay if you feel a little emotional right now. Working with guilt and shame comes with some big feelings. We’re going to put you back in control of your guilt pattern right now. Thankfully, all guilt can be used for good. We respond to guilt based on what bucket it’s in.

Buckets #1, 2, 3, 4, and 5: Change your rules.
These buckets are about the rules you’ve put in place about what has to happen for you to feel successful in the role you’re playing. (Think mom, exec, or wife). If you’re feeling guilt in any of these first buckets, please revisit your rules.

What has to happen for you to be successful at X? Are your answers attainable by a real, human woman? Can you actually succeed, or do your current rules set you up for guilt? If they do, adjust those rules until guilt is a goner. (For more on roles and rules check out my blog Who are you? How to navigate the ins and outs of identity.)

Bucket #6: Change your behavior.
This bucket is all good guilt and invitations to grow. Ask yourself four questions.

  • What went wrong?
  • What would have been a better response?
  • What will you do next time?
  • Do you need to have a conversation or make an apology?

If you need to have a conversation with someone or say you’re sorry, do it. It takes a big person to take responsibility for mistakes and bad judgment. And you get better each time you do it.

Bucket #7: Transform your shame.
Shame will take you out. It will make you play small and scared, (while self-hating along the way). If you’re in it, you need to get proactive. We address shame in three ways.

First, get educated. Google shame resources, and you’ll be rewarded with more information than you can probably absorb. I highly recommend the work (and books) of Dr. Brene Brown. She is the pre-eminent thought leader on shame and shame resiliency. Her website is http://brenebrown.com. (I have no financial arrangement with Dr. Brown. I’m just a super fan who believes in her work.)

Second, shame requires processing. You have to look at it, and you need to do that in a safe, constructive space. If you were dealing with a physical wound, you wouldn’t think twice about going to a doctor, would you? Emotional wounds need doctors too.

If you’re in shame or healing from it, please reach out to a therapist, counselor, or support group. Shame needs major TLC. Work with people who know how to render it, and you can grow beyond your wildest imagination.

I get that there’s still some stigma around therapy. But I want you to know it’s okay to ask for help. I have personally done some of my deepest and most profound work wrapped in a blanket with a bag of tissues and a cup of tea on a great therapist’s couch.

Finally, your behavior can transform your shame. As it turns out, you begin to believe in your own worth when you behave in a way you find worthy. This is great news, because it means you can be an active participant in turning your shame around. For a little bit of help behaving your way out of shame, check out my blogs Know your worth. Then live like you know it, and How to connect with your power.

You are so much bigger than your guilt or shame. Decide today that you’re going to take charge of your pattern, and put it to work in your life. You CAN do it, and your life will be better when you do. 

That’s it for the week. Remember that I never want you to blindly take my word for anything. Only you know what’s right for you. I just happen to have a few coaching tools that can help you get closer to that wisdom. Give this lesson’s advice a test drive in your life, and let me know how it goes. There are three ways for us to interact.

  • Comment in the comments section below.
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  • Email me if you have something more private you’d like to ask. My personal email is kim@kimberlyfulcher.com. I’m the only one reading your messages, and it’s always me answering them.

My mission is your empowerment. That’s why I’m here. If you haven’t already joined my community, please do it by entering your email (www.kimberlyfulcher.com). Until we meet again, know that life is happening for you.

And you got this!

XO

Kim

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