A Word about Guilt and Self-Care 

A guest blog by the lovely Paula Gardner.

Self-care is very de rigeur right now, but many of my clients report feeling guilty about it. I especially see this among people with families. They feel that they just can’t disappear into the bath for an hour, pick up a book, or sometimes even watch TV, without the family falling apart.

Guilt is an emotion and belongs with emotions like grief and loneliness. There are many types of guilt…guilt for something you might have done. Guilt for something you didn’t do. Guilt for something you even just thought about. For the moment, let’s look at one type of guilt that I think has a strong pull when we can’t even take some time out. That is the guilt of not doing enough.

Psychologists believe that this guilt is a sign of something called Compassion Fatigue, which is a form of burn-out.

You can see compassion fatigue at work in black and white when you watch someone caring for a dying relative. They may be doing everything in their power to ease the sick person’s distress, but it’s still not enough. Frankly, it’s never going to be enough. The fact that it is not enough induces a feeling of guilt that is hard to carry. This desire to help their sick relative is never going to be alleviated and there is dissonance, a gap, between what they want and what’s happening. Taken to an extreme, this is now the stress disorder of compassion fatigue.

On a more domestic, daily level our desires to help others, nurture our family and take care of loved ones mean that anything less than (unobtainable) perfection often create a feeling of guilt. We believe that we are not doing enough. This feeling can be intensified when we do something for ourselves, instead of pouring ourselves into this never-ending pit of wanting to help others.

The question is, how do we deal with that feeling of guilt for taking time out for ourselves? We can attack it head on, using logic and reminding ourselves that it is the gap between what we can do and we would like to do, nothing more. It is an emotion created by this dissonance. However, that also means that we can push past it and just get on with our self-care anyway.

Another approach is to try to look at the situation objectively, as if you were looking at a friend’s life. What would you sensibly expect her or him to do for their family and what boundaries would you suggest where they might draw the line? What combination of time and energy spent on others and on themselves would you suggest?

This isn’t necessary a prescription for the actual feeling of guilt, but it may help to know that what you are feeling is the emotion created by a desire to do more. A desire that can never be completely fulfilled anyway.

Now, if someone else is making you feel guilty about taking time out for self-care, that is a whole other thing. Don’t be too keen to jump to the conclusion or abuse, or control freakery, however. Like many others, this person is possibly stuck in the premise that we should always be doing something, that to switch off is lazy. Understanding where they are coming from is the start to sitting down with them and explaining that no, you are not being lazy. You are not being self-indulgent, and can they please keep their guilt to themselves, thank you very much.

About the author

Paula Gardner is a coach and psychologist who works with clients around careers, work/life balance, motivation and mindset. https://www.scarletthinking.com

Featured image by Moritz Schumacher on Unsplash

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