Do these statements sound familiar?
"My apartment is such a mess. Why can't I just get it together?"
"I forgot about my doctor's appointment. What is wrong with me?"
"I ate too much last night and now I feel bloated and awful."
"I'm not doing enough for my kids/partner/parent/friends. I'm so selfish!"
Guilt is a common emotion that we all experience. Women, in particular, are prone to feeling guilty, according to research. A 2009 study by Etxebarria, published in the Spanish Journal of Psychology, surveyed women and men from three age groups (156 teenagers, 96 young adults, and 108 older adults) about which situations most often caused them to feel guilt. The researchers found that habitual guilt was higher for women than men in all three age groups, with the biggest gap in the 40- to 50-year-old range. This age corresponds to the "sandwich generation" years, in which many people juggle taking care of teenagers with staying connected to aging parents.
Another study found that women report more guilt than men, overall, when they take work calls or answer work emails in the evening. Finally, research shows that millennial women—and millennials in general—feel guilty about taking vacations.
Why Do Women Feel More Guilty?
Why are women more prone to feel guilt? The answer probably lies in socialization. Across societies, women and girls have been socialized for thousands of years to get along with others, not hurt anybody's feelings, and take care of loved ones. In many (but not all) families, women take more responsibility for staying in touch with relatives and friends, keeping up with everybody's schedules, and keeping the household functioning effectively.
Is Guilt Healthy or Unhealthy?
Is guilt healthy or unhealthy? It can be either—or both. Healthy feelings of guilt motivate you to live according to your authentic values, which, in turn, can improve your relationships with others, since you are more likely to treat them with respect and do your fair share. However, unnecessary or excessive feelings of guilt can also be a psychological burden that interferes with your emotions and quality of life.
On the unhealthy end, "excessive or inappropriate guilt" is a symptom of clinical depression, according to the American Psychiatric Association's DSM-5 diagnostic criteria. Excessive guilt has also been associated with a history of childhood trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. Traumatic guilt can take many forms, including "survivor's guilt," or guilt at pursuing your own life when somebody in the family was suffering, dysfunctional, or needed a lot of emotional care.
Feelings of guilt can also signify a sense of unworthiness, perhaps rooted in relationships with critical, neglecting, or abusive parents. People with eating disorders often feel excessive guilt about eating, putting on weight, or not exercising enough. This guilt often co-exists with a distorted, negative body image.
What You Can Do
If you are prone to feeling the unhealthy kind of guilt—in which you are always beating yourself up for not doing enough—use the tips and tools below to set yourself free. It takes a lot of practice and deliberate re-thinking to change an entrenched pattern of guilt, so be patient with yourself:
1. Look for the evidence.
If you feel guilty because you’re "not doing enough" for your kids, partner, or family, list all the things that you regularly do for them. Then, keep the list in your purse or wallet to pull out when guilt rears its head.
2. Be direct and get more information.
Ask the people you think you’re neglecting whether they actually feel neglected. Consider whether they have a tendency to expect too much and not take enough responsibility for themselves (e.g., teenagers who expect you to pick up after them). Then, think about how an outside observer would view the situation. If you conclude that you really aren’t doing enough, then come up with some solutions or compromises that balance everybody's needs.
3. Appreciate yourself and all that you do.
Write a “self-gratitude” diary at the end of every day, noting at least three things you did that day that furthered your goals or helped someone you care about. At the end of the week, read what you’ve written. Guilt and perfectionism have a negative bias. They make you pay attention to what you’re not doing right. By writing down what you actually did, you can overcome this bias and force yourself to focus on your accomplishments.
4. Think about how you would see things if the roles were reversed.
Would you think your friend or partner wasn't doing enough, given all they had going on? We often find it easy to be compassionate and understanding with others but are too harsh on ourselves. By deliberately taking the other person's perspective, you’ll likely see your situation in a more objective light.
5. Curb the "black and white" thinking.
Are you thinking about the situation in all-or-nothing terms? Do you think that if you're not the perfect partner (or daughter, or parent) you must be the worst one on the planet? Try to find the gray amid all that black and white. Consider other ways of seeing the situation. Try to judge your efforts in context, rather than always expecting perfection.
6. Look for the emotions underneath the guilt.
Might the guilt be masking other feelings like anger, intimidation, or resentment? If you're in a relationship with a very needy person or a narcissist, you or your partner may convince you that you're being selfish by setting limits and saying no. Over time, your guilt and inner conflict may actually be masking resentment.
7. Decide how much you're willing and able to do.
If you honestly feel that you haven't done enough for your partner or family member, then make an authentic commitment to taking specific caring or helpful actions going forward. If you can't do all the housework in the evening, decide which pieces you can commit to doing. Then, communicate this willingness to your partner in a proactive way.
8. Realize it's okay to take care of your own needs.
Some of us were the family peacemakers who took care of others all the time. Perhaps you had an alcoholic parent who was incapable of properly taking care of you. As an adult, you may still silence your own needs or feel they are less valid than those of your partner, child, or friend. But you don't have to let this reaction to past trauma shape your relationships in the present.
Adapted from The Stress-Proof Brain: Master Your Emotional Response to Stress Using Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity by Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. Copyright 2017.
Etxebarria, I., Ortiz, M. J., Conejero, S. y Pascual, A. Intensity of habitual guilt in men and women: Differences in interpersonal sensitivity and the tendency towards anxious-aggressive guilt. Spanish Journal of Psychology, 2009; 12 (2): 540-554