Snow White Doesn't Live Here Anymore

Laughter, pleasure, malice, and the pursuit of adult fun

After the Holidays: Serving Left-Over Guilt

How does guilt help you? Don't kid yourself: lots of times, it doesn't.

“Michael,” I call out to my husband, whose office is across the hall, “What makes you feel guilty?”

“I used to feel bad about not feeling guilty, but I don’t feel that way anymore” he yells back, then laughs.

We’re working at home. He’s busy but at ease with his need to get his work accomplished undisturbed. In contrast, I’m typing while talking to Heidi. Heidi, who’s worked for us for 15 years, is sweeping up cat litter from around my chair as I consider guilt.

I feel guilty about having another woman clean my house, but not guilty enough to do it myself.

“Tell them I get paid for it,” Heidi instructs, reading over my shoulder. “This is not an act of love. It’s my job. Now lift up your feet. And stop analyzing everything already. Okay, you can put your feet back.”

I’m trying to get rid of guilt; my goal is to replace it with humility and gratitude. I’m trying especially hard to distinguish between genuine humility and its evil twin, humiliation.

Not so easy.

Humiliation is when you’re worried that others will see your inadequacies (“I’m embarrassed to be seen in my bathing suit”; “I’m horrified that if my kids are dumb or spoiled, people will think I’m a bad mother”; “I hate driving a gas-guzzler — I feel like everybody thinks I paid no attention to Earth Day”).

Humility is when you think not about how you will be judged by others, but how you can help them — or even how you can think about them (“Nobody looks at me on the beach — I can just enjoy myself with my friends and splash around”; “If my kids are clean and happy, I’m doing a great job “; “I’m giving my neighbor a lift to the hospital — he doesn’t care what year my car was made”).

The big difference is that humiliation is about yourself and humility is about realizing that you are not all that important in the grand scheme of things — except when you can make a difference.

And that can be a big relief.

Let’s go back to feeling rotten about the fact that I don’t clean. There are a number of reasons for this. I am a not a great cleaner, even though I know how to do it. As a teenager, I cleaned houses as a part-time job. I was cleaning somebody else’s house the afternoon my mother died, the summer I was 16; got the phone call and felt bad about leaving the job only half-done. This was entirely self-imposed. The lady whose kitchen floor I was washing did not scowl at me in a Dickensian manner or anything. She was sympathetic and kind. I made myself feel bad — nobody did it to me.

I felt terrible, of course, about my mother’s illness and death. Not that there was anything I could do about it — cancer teaches a fast and hard course in humility. But I was haunted by the thought that maybe I could have been a better daughter; been more attentive, less argumentative, more loving. Actually, I was a pretty good kid. Probably because I had a pretty good mother. I began to forgive myself for being incapable of saving her when I began to forgive my mother for being incapable of saving herself. Which took, by the way, years of therapy; this wasn’t a sudden flash of insight that came from watching a daytime TV show or reading a self-help book.

Yet I had, early on in life, developed a taste for guilt. I apologized for rainy days or if I got stuck in traffic. I apologized for having a name with a lot of vowels, difficult to spell if I was ordering a gift from a catalog.

I apologized for being single, for being unhappily married, for being divorced, for being a second wife, for being a step-mother, for being happily married.

I apologized for not having my old relatives live with me (too little); I apologized for speaking to my father every day (too much).

In graduate school, I apologized for not having a “real” job; when I got a “real” job, I apologized for having one.

I couldn’t let myself win. If I did, then I would have to accept the enormous responsibility of continuing to live up to that moment as well as the obligation of helping other folks do as well.

It sounded pretty tiring. Guilt is easier than action.

My apologies did exactly this much good for anybody else: 0.

My guilt did even less good since it hurt me and sucked up energy I could have used for kindness, or generosity, or hard work, which might have genuinely helped someone else.

Not that I have it all figured out. When I mess up, I still feel bad about my mistakes. I then try to admit them instantly, rectify them quickly, and understand them as soon as possible in order not to repeat them. It is hard and does not always work.

But it is better than guilt.

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Gina Barreca, Ph.D., is Professor of English at UConn, and author of It's Not That I'm Bitter: How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Visible Panty Lines and Conquered the World.

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