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Banishing that sticky emotion: guilt

with Holly & Co resident coach

Edna O’Brien once described one of her characters as having a “long iceberg of guilt”¹ inside her. How perceptive. How astute. Because that really is exactly how this lurky emotion feels for many of us — and it’s agony. Whether it’s something truly unforgivable or just having not called a friend when we said we would, this paralysing feeling can have a devastating effect on us, our loved ones, our lives and our businesses. And it sticks around way longer than it should. 

So what can we do to unburden ourselves? Are there really ways to learn to live with it? Our resident business psychologist, coach and all round oracle Kate, says in most cases, yes. She’s here to help us understand more about the nature of guilt and our relationship to it, and most importantly, shares some practical pointers on how we can banish it.

So what is guilt and how does it affect us?

Guilt is an emotional state we get into caused by conflict around not doing something we think we should have or doing something we perceive as being ‘wrong’, either on purpose or accidentally. It affects us physically, too. We go red, our stomachs lurch, we can’t sleep, our hearts race… or it might just feel like a blankness, something we learn to live with — even though it can make us very ill.

Kate really wants to emphasise that, “Some feelings of guilt are very deep rooted. They can be caused by trauma and if you are experiencing that type of guilt, this is when you should go to a psychotherapist and properly work on to help get out of that position.”

There is no magic wand sadly. However, the more regular ‘day-to-day’ guilt is something we can work on ourselves. And it’s important that we do. 

Dr Guy Winch PhD said, “We experience five hours a week of guilty feelings.” and also that, “Studies have found that concentration, productivity, creativity and efficiency are all significantly lower when you’re feeling actively guilty.”²

Just imagine the knock on effect of that on your business. Yet guilt isn’t solely bad. Sometimes it’s even productive. It’s there as a kind of warning system to help teach us to avoid certain behaviour or situations in the future. Plus it shows us we’re not sociopaths, which is always a bonus of course…

The two types of guilt

Coach Kate explains, “There are actually two types of guilt: healthy guilt and unhealthy guilt. Healthy guilt is when we actually have done something wrong, and our guilt is proportionate to that. Often we can remedy it by apologising or making amends. In business, if we’ve over-charged someone, we can offer a refund. If we’re spending money we don’t have, we can stop doing it. But then there’s unhealthy guilt; it’s often totally disproportionate to the event, when you feel you can’t put something right. Sometimes it’s completely disconnected from the truth yet we catastrophise it. And this can cause real significant stress over time.”

Generally, the more experienced we are in life, the more we can start to make a distinction between the two. We can look back and reflect on those times when we worried ourselves sick but actually the thing we most feared turned out not to be as bad as we thought — and we can use those experiences to our advantage to help rationalise new situations that arise.

Dr Guy Winch PhD said, “We experience five hours a week of guilty feelings.” and also that, “Studies have found that concentration, productivity, creativity and efficiency are all significantly lower when you’re feeling actively guilty.”²

What do founders commonly feel guilty about?

All of us have the usual worries when we’re lying in bed at night. The cards we haven’t sent, the family we haven’t seen, the way we randomly snapped at our partners for buying chicken instead of fish. It’s endless and it’s exhausting. But many founders have all the work ones on top… Often it’s around time. Taking a day off or (shock horror) going on holiday for the first time in five years. Feeling guilty if you’re not spending enough time with the business/family/friends/delete as applicable. Then there’s parental guilt; plonking them in front of the TV. Not knowing what their new favourite crisp flavour is as you’re always at work. Plus there’s being successful when others weren’t through the pandemic. It’s endless. But it’s good to remember, we’re certainly not alone. And the more we share these feelings, the more likely we are to diminish them.

10 ways we can train ourselves to overcome it:

1. Press pause

Ask yourself honestly, should you really be feeling guilty? Is it your interpretation of the situation or 100% fact? Is it your values that are being compromised or inherited ones (ie. values that your parents, grandparents or teachers held or expected societal norms rather than your own true beliefs)? Is it genuinely worth feeling guilty about?

2. See if you can address the situation and put it right

If it’s something you feel you’ve done wrong, try and remedy it ASAP. Don’t let it fester. If it’s something from a long time ago, deal with that too. Holly calls these ‘guilt cobwebs’. Write a letter. Make that phone call. Apologise and get rid of it.

3. Stop recurring patterns of guilt

Are you always late for work? Find a new route or leave earlier. It sounds obvious but small changes make a big difference. 

4. Focus on three things that matter

Define the biggest things you feel guilty about, work on those and let the rest go. Otherwise it’s overwhelming and it’s likely the smaller ones don’t matter. 

If it’s something you feel you’ve done wrong, try and remedy it ASAP. Don’t let it fester. If it’s something from a long time ago, deal with that too. Holly calls these ‘guilt cobwebs’. Write a letter. Make that phone call. Apologise and get rid of it.

5. Think about quality over quantity

If you keep missing the children’s bedtimes for example, set two nights a week where you will be there, happy and fully present, and stick to it (rather than meaning to get there every night and never making it or half looking at your phone). It’s likely to be better for you and the children. 

6. Remember we aren’t responsible for making the world happy

We have a duty to look after our own needs first to enable us to be better for others. 

7. Reframe it or redefine it

Think of the ‘up’ side. Being successful isn’t annoying, it’s important. Other people need role models and positive stories, especially the younger generation. Also use your success to give back. Think how you can help others now by mentoring, donating, hiring and so on. The more good you do, the less guilty you’re likely to feel. Similarly, resting isn’t a waste of time. It’s a vital way to ensure you’re in the best possible form to run your business. Not resting is neglectful, and so on.

8. Look after yourself physically

Otherwise it affects you mentally. Breathe, calm your mind and avoid the vicious circle. The more guilty we feel, the worse we sleep, the more emotional we get, the worse the guilt becomes and so on. 

9. Understand that guilt is often a waste of emotion 

Our worst fears often don’t materialise. We feel guilty about things that never happen. What positive emotion could we replace it with instead?

10. Give it a name

Sketchy Mumma says, “I am calling guilt a character name like Graham or something to separate it from me”. What a brilliant way to help manage it. 

Overall, the less guilt we feel, the more energy we’ll save for our families, our friends and our businesses. Plus we’ll be setting a better example for others by refusing to carry it around like heavy shopping. So whip out that Vanish, be kind to yourself and let’s get it gone.

 

Sources:

  1. http://www.azquotes.com/author/10944-Edna_O_Brien
  2. https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/the-squeaky-wheel/201411/10-things-you-didnt-know-about-guilt

Image credits: Emma Giacalone ‘Vanish Guilt’ Embroidery, Vinegar & Brown Paper Guilt Remover bottle

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