May 16, 2022 | Written By: Kathryn Miller, MSW, LCSW | Spark the Change Colorado Manager, Mental Wellness Supervision Program
Guilt is a complicated emotion. It’s an unproductive one, too. I’m not talking about appropriate guilt—the kind that awakens your conscience when you’ve done something wrong. Instead, I’m referring to misplaced guilt—a general and encompassing sense that we just aren’t good or worthy enough to stand up for ourselves and what we need.
When we feel this type of guilt, which is more akin to shame, we stew and wade through it as if it were quicksand. Misplaced guilt doesn’t propel us unto taking effective action and it surely doesn’t make us feel good.
In a world where there are ever increasing demands across spheres, how do we say “no” when we need to for our own wellbeing and sanity?
The way I understand guilt is through the lens of boundaries. Boundaries are limits that we put in place to protect ourselves. They may be physical, emotional, financial, etc. Boundaries operate on a spectrum from loose to rigid. Loose boundaries are too open, leading us to say “yes” when we really mean “no,” whereas rigid boundaries leave us too closed, saying “no” when perhaps we should consider a “yes.” Healthy boundaries are regulated, living in the middle of these two poles. When we exercise healthy boundaries, we decide if the answer is “yes” or “no” and communicate that assertively.
Guilt is often associated with loose boundaries. If you find yourself having a hard time saying no, or agreeing to do something because you “should” or “have to,” then it’s a good sign your boundaries could use a tune up. Consider a few common situations:
- You are a parent of 3 kids and hyperextended at work and home, but you still sign up to bring something to teacher appreciation week because you “have to as a class parent.”
- Your coworker has asked to borrow money for lunch many times but seldom repays you. As you walk to Chipotle together one day, she says she forgot her wallet and asks if you will spot her again. You do, because “it’s easier not to rock the boat.”
- You are swamped at work and realize you’re doing a fair bit of your colleague’s overflow, but when your boss asks you to start a new project, you reluctantly agree because it’s the “way to be a team player” and you “can’t just say no.”
Guilt results from an inability to prioritize your own wellbeing during a conflict of needs. When we operate from a place of guilt, we often say “yes” despite the fact that everything inside us is saying “no!” This is a classic loose boundary, propelling us to over-identifying with the other party in the conflict. In the process, we risk our own health and happiness.
For some of us, guilt stems from a sense of self that could use some work. If guilt is a persistent issue for you, consider talking to a good therapist about where your own guilt comes from, whether that be trauma or childhood socialization. In the meantime, there are some simple ways to practice standing up for yourself a little easier:
- Take a breather. When you are considering a decision, don’t feel pressured to respond immediately. Take a moment to think about it.
- Practice saying no daily. Practice makes better! When we first say “no” it can feel awkward, challenging, or uncomfortable, but it gets easier with time. May it a point to say “no” to something every day. Bonus points if you can do it without giving a reason or apology.
- Try “no” with a sensitive tone. Ex: “No, I can’t help with that. I would like to, but I have other obligations.”
- Start your reply with “no” first and keep your response short and sweet. It’s easier to keep your commitment when you aren’t rambling awkwardly.
- Remember that if you give excuses for why you can’t do something, it allows the other person to eliminate those obstacles to rope you into a “yes.”
- Think about what a friend or family member might encourage you to do. If you took this issue to a trusted confidant, would they tell you to not be so hard on yourself and give yourself a break?
- Practice self-compassion. Pretend you are giving advice to a younger version of you struggling with the same problem. What would you say to 5-year-old you?
And, on a longer-term basis:
- Get grounded. We are so busy these days that many of us aren’t in touch with our own needs and wants, making it hard to even determine when we need to say “no.” Take 5-10 minutes every day to set an intention, meditate, get outside, or journal. Reflect on your day with “highs” and “lows” to start to get back in touch with who you are and what you need to maintain wellbeing.
- Create space. It’s going to be hard to get grounded if you continue to work at 110 mph. What can you cut back on, outsource, or simply cross off your list? If you’re financially able, can you order dinner out, have the groceries delivered, or take a day off work to clear your personal chores list?
- Find Support. Get reconnected or newly acquainted with friends, family, or a licensed mental health therapist. Reflecting on your life with people who have your best interest in mind can help you make smart choices.
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