What have I done to deserve this?

As the end of 2020 closes in, I’ve been reflecting on the writing I’ve done over the course of the year. A year that has taken twists and turns I never could have predicted, not least with the creation of my blog and my apprehensive foray into the world of Instagram.  

When asked whether any themes or patterns have emerged from the interviews I’ve conducted this year for my ‘Work-Life Balance Profiles’ series, there is the one word that I’ve noticed recurring more than any other: guilt.  

In general, my subjects have been so diverse, and their stories so personal, that few common issues have arisen. Except this notion of guilt.  

So when I recently read an article by the glamorous icon Dame Joan Collins, one thing she said triggered a beep in my mind, like a metal detector sweeping over a hidden coin in the sand. Commenting on what it was like returning to work after becoming a mother, she said that she has “never felt guilt”. “I loved acting and I loved the business”, she wrote. “I just wanted to get back to work […] I didn’t have anything to feel guilty about”.  

I’ve yet to reach any conclusions about the ‘guilt pattern’ I’ve picked up from my interviewees to date. Admittedly, the vast majority of people I interviewed are parents (I’m keen to broaden the demographic so please do send nominations for future features my way…). And a mere eight subjects is hardly a generous sample pool, which is why I’ve been put off until now to comment on the pattern I’ve observed. But reading Dame Joan’s bold statement about her aversion to guilt, prompted me to share my observations so far: 

1.      Guilt and gender:  

Of the eight interviews I’ve written up so far, four have been with women, and four with men. Not one of the men mentioned the word “guilt” during their interview. In contrast, all four women did. Between them, the women I interviewed described a whole host of things that they feel guilty about on a regular basis. There was one exception, to be fair, and that was Soli, who unapologetically stated that she does not feel guilty about taking time to care for herself. She was conscious that this was exceptional, however, and made a point of explaining it.  

In contrast, it didn’t seem to play on the minds of the men I interviewed. 

2.      Guilt knows no bounds 

There was no fixed pattern to what the women I interviewed said they feel guilty about. For some, their guilt is caused by spending time at work away from their children and their worries about the long-term impact this might have. Others said that they don’t feel guilty about being away from their children while working, but feel bad about letting domestic standards slip, or about not being more patient or present when with their children.  

A few described a type of constant nagging internal monologue about how they could, or should, generally be doing more in their lives, not just for their families, but for their communities or the world at large.  

For Marsha, who was not working at the time of our interview, her guilt was intrinsically linked to not making a financial contribution to her home, resulting in her feeling unentitled to indulge in anything for her own pleasure and fulfilment unless it impacted in some way on the rest of her family. This was not exclusive to her; Sarah, who does contribute to her family’s income, described similar feelings of guilt (though that didn’t influence her behaviour in the same way that it did Marsha’s). 

In essence, no two experiences or catalysts of guilt that I have encountered in the ‘Work-Life Balance Profile’ series have been identical. One thing that all subjects agreed on, however, was that their guilty feelings are a negative and unproductive drain on their energy and emotional wellbeing.  

3.      Guilty habits 

I observed from those I interviewed that there seems to be both internal and external pressures influencing how individuals determine whether they “have permission” to indulge in the things they want to do, versus doing what they feel they have to do. 

Whilst guilt was often the result of choosing the “want to” over the “have to”, this was not always the case. In other words, feeling guilty was subjective, and not an inevitable consequence.  

Some of my subjects described a logical, practical and accepting ‘self-granting’ of permission to do as they pleased without feeling guilty. Others seemed to endure a persistent battle against it, or described relying on others to ‘grant them permission’.  

It would be unfeeling and over-simplistic to say that one chooses whether or not to feel guilty; but there certainly seems to be a degree of choice at play, albeit a subconscious one. A person’s self-esteem seems to be a factor; some described feeling confident and entitled not to feel guilty (as per the Joan Collins example); others less so.  

Feeling validated in the pursuit of one’s work and life choices appeared to help keep guilt at bay. Where partners were involved, the support that one’s partner showed in encouraging the person to let go of the “have to”s and indulge in the “want to”s without feeling guilty about it, clearly made a difference. But one’s internal monologue about what is deserving is as strong, if not stronger, than the words of others.  

Reflecting on her working motherhood, Dame Joan, now 87, can attest with certainty: “Anyone who knows me will tell you I was a good mother, but I worked a lot and I loved parties”.  

There is no reason why those things need to be mutually exclusive. Yet, not everyone it seems has it in them to shake off the creeping sense of guilt that permeates throughout work and life choices. 

Looking over the various perspectives of my subjects, I am left thinking that perhaps it could be possible to train oneself to take control of, or at least rationalise, guilty feelings. In so doing, could the damaging negative energy it generates be minimised, or repurposed to become a force for good? There is no magic formula that I’m aware of (though that could emerge, I suppose, in a future blog if this ‘guilt pattern’ continues into 2021…).  

In the meantime, I think that listening to – and learning from – others’ approaches and experiences, however different they are to one’s own circumstances, can be helpful and encouraging of self-compassion and understanding.  

And that feels like a suitably optimistic thought to bear in mind as we welcome in the new year.  

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