The Guilt Trap and How to Escape It

It’s time to change your outlook and your behavior.

Posted Dec 03, 2018

 Iphotography/iStock
Source: Iphotography/iStock

I remember, as a young girl, when something went wrong, my first thought was, “What did I do wrong?” and when something went right, I thought, “I got lucky this time.” In fact, researchers say that by about six years old, young girls generally have a lower threshold for self-blame than young boys. Whether it’s nature or nurture or both, many of us fall into the guilt trap easily and often, and we don’t know how to climb out of it.

For example, read these quotes from women dealing with infertility:

“I feel like everything that went wrong in my life was somehow my own fault.”
“I know I can’t get pregnant because I want it too much.”
“I think I’m being punished for working too hard.”
“I’ve worried so much about building a bank account before I had a child, now I’ve worn my body out.”
“I felt so guilty about my abortion that I think my ovaries have shut down…I think I’m punishing myself.”

They are all blaming themselves for their fertility problems and are overwhelming themselves with constant critical reviews of their past and worrying about their ability to predict the future. They are all wrong.

Research tells us that infertility causes stress, but not vice versa. Women can conceive under the most stressful conditions if there isn’t a physiological problem. And even when stress does trigger a disruption of ovulation, the change is usually self-correcting and time-limited, or it’s just a trigger for a pre-existing condition. If our reproductive systems were as vulnerable to stress as many believe, the human species would have perished a long time ago.

So why is there so much guilt surrounding an infertility diagnosis or any life obstacle? Probably because there’s a seductive side of self-blame and guilt. If we can convince ourselves that we are responsible for our trouble, we can make ourselves believe that we have the power to fix it. It might sound like this: “I made myself infertile by being stressed, so I can undo it and make myself fertile by relaxing.” This is what I call the “guilt trap.” because it’s based only on wishful thinking.  Relaxing is a great idea, but not a fertility cure-all. 

So how do we climb out of the guilt trap? It takes practice and patience.

Since you can’t change something you are not aware of doing, the first step is to catch yourself every time you say or think, “could have”, “would have” or “should have” and substitute a neutral, non-judgmental mantra, like, “It is what it is." This keeps you in the present instead of running away into a fantasy of how things could have been or should have been. The problem with mentally escaping is, when you come back to the present, you have to start accepting reality all over again. Besides, dwelling on the past not only increases the number of times you are re-traumatized, it can also delay recovery and treatment.

Try this trick for catching yourself going into the past. Set up two glasses on your desk or dresser. Get a stash of pennies or jellybeans. Every time you catch yourself in the past because of self-blame or guilt, throw a penny or jellybean into the left glass, and every time you tell yourself, “it is what it is”, throw one into the right glass. At the end of the first week add up the contents of each and empty them. Then start again. By the end of the second week, the “present” glass (the one to the right) usually has more! Try for zero in the “past” glass by week three. It’s often easier to visualize your behavior which can help lead to a positive change.  

Next, learn more about your diagnosis and the stress-fertility research. The real story will not only relieve your self-blame, it will also educate your support group and loved ones, so they won’t blame you either. So many women feel defensive and embarrassed about fertility problems that one study found infertile women's anxiety and depression levels equaled those of women with conditions such as cancer, HIV and chronic pain.

Finally, try some cognitive restructuring. Redefine yourself as the one who is strong enough to go for what she wants, rather than the one who caused the problem. Once you shift your focus, you will be cheering yourself on instead of putting yourself down.

The more you throw yourself back into your daily life, the less you will be dwelling on misguided self-blame and guilt. Besides, blaming yourself gives others the same idea. It has taken me a lot of practice to see things going wrong as, “inconvenient” rather than “my fault,” and to take credit when things go right. Start your climb out of the guilt trap today.