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I feel guilty about everything

Our columnist, award-winning coach Kim Morgan, advises a woman whose feelings of guilt are dominating her life

by Psychologies

Coaching session one: living with guilt

Charlotte* wanted to have some coaching to help her manage her stress levels. I asked her to tell me more about her life and what she thought was causing her to feel stressed. I learned that she was happily married with two young children and worked two days a week as a florist, which she loved. Her parents lived in the same village as Charlotte and looked after the children when she was working. She had no health or money worries, and lots of friends. As she said all this aloud, she laughed. ‘It sounds like the perfect life, doesn’t it?’ she said.

I asked Charlotte what aspect of her life was causing her to feel stressed. ‘Me, I guess. I feel guilty all the time – about everything.’ I was surprised. ‘Everything?’ I asked. ‘Well, when I’m at work, I feel guilty for leaving the children. Then, when I’m with the children, I feel guilty if I get cross with them. I feel guilty for asking my parents to look after the children and guilty if I don’t make time for my husband. At work, I worry that I could ruin someone’s whole wedding if I mess up the bridal bouquet. I feel guilty that I don’t do enough for my friends, and guilty for not exercising or for eating ready meals instead of cooking from scratch. Someone gave me a voucher for a spa day over a year ago, and I feel guilty about not having used it, but I would also feel guilty if I spent a day at a spa. So basically, yes, everything! Oh, and I still feel guilty that I didn’t breastfeed my first child.’

At the end of the session, I asked Charlotte to write down every night all the good things she had done that day.

Coaching session two: searching for causes

Living with constant guilt is draining. Prolonged feelings of self-condemnation are very damaging to self-esteem. ‘Healthy’ guilt serves a purpose: if we mess up, it can help us learn lessons for the future. But Charlotte’s guilt wasn’t useful. I spoke to her about the possible causes of her guilt:

  • Wanting people to like you; being a people-pleaser.
  • ‘Shoulds’ – the things you tell yourself you should be doing. Comparing your life unfavourably with the lives you imagine other people are leading.
  • Perfectionism and not allowing yourself to make a mistake. Fear of ‘letting people down’.
  • Early conditioning or childhood messages to put others first and to feel responsible for other people’s happiness.
  • Being susceptible to manipulation by people who know how to push your guilt button.

Charlotte realised her key factor was the childhood message to put others first. I shared a Jack Kornfield quote with her which she decided to adopt as her mantra: ‘If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.’

Coaching session three: confronting the past

Charlotte arrived at our third session in a much more positive frame of mind. She told me she’d been doing a lot of thinking and had remembered a childhood incident she believed contributed to her feelings of guilt.

When she was at primary school, she tripped over in a three-legged race on sports day and her running partner suffered a broken arm in the fall. Charlotte’s teacher blamed her for causing the other little girl to be hurt. Charlotte admitted that this emotionally charged moment had led her to feel guilty throughout her life, and to worry generally that she would hurt people by her actions.

She had spent some time re-examining this incident and realising it wasn’t her fault. As an adult, she was learning that she wasn’t responsible for other people’s feelings.

Whose voice is it?

Sometimes, you may be failing to live up to the expectations of someone else. When you hear a voice in your head telling you that you should or should not be doing something, stop for a moment and ask yourself:

  • Whose voice is that?
  • Whose standards am I failing to live up to?

Then ask yourself:

  • What do I really believe about this?
  • What would I say to someone else in my situation?

This will help you to live by your own standards.

Identify your guilt-trippers

Nice people who want to please others can easily be made to feel guilty by expert manipulators. They know exactly what to say to make you feel guilty – as they know that’s how they can get you to do what they want!

  • Draw up two columns on a page. In the first column, write the names of all the people in your life to whom you can say ‘no’ without feeling guilty, and who give you lots of support and never give you a bad time.
  • In the second column, write the names of people who put pressure on you or who use threats, sarcasm, silences, sulks or other emotionally manipulative behaviours. Now you have identified your guilt-trippers, decide what you want to do about them.

You have a few choices:

  • Change your behaviour to be more assertive with them.
  • Challenge them about their behaviour.
  • Limit the amount of contact you have with them – or don’t have any contact at all.

Responsibility pie chart

  • Draw a large circle on a piece of paper to represent something you feel is your responsibility and that you feel guilty about.
  • Try to think about the situation objectively – divide the circle into a ‘responsibility’ pie chart, apportioning responsibility for the situation between you, other people and external factors.
  • This powerful exercise will enable you to develop a more balanced perspective on situations in which you feel guilty, and will help you to see that it’s not all down to you!

For more from Kim, go to barefootcoaching.co.uk

Watch Suzy Greaves, our editor, speak with Kim Morgan here:

Kim Morgan and Suzy Greaves in conversation

*Name has been changed

Illustration: Andrea De Santis