Ever had to be the ‘bad guy’ in a situation? I’m stuck in that place right now, and to be honest it kinda sucks. OK – it really sucks. In a word it’s guilt.
I’ve recently had to make a choice for my own health and well-being. It took me three years to stand up and stop forcing myself to ‘be OK’ when I wasn’t. Yet, there’s this lingering guilt, this nagging suspicion that I’m being selfish, ego-centric, self-obsessed. See, I’m someone who gives in when it’s not worth the fight, and I will let myself be taken advantage of to keep the peace in many ways – so this decision wasn’t one I made lightly.
And while some have supported that decision and been very encouraging, I’m being vilified by others. Something that was entirely about me has become about other people – and I’m piling on the guilt – rock after rock building the wall that keeps everyone out and me trapped alone inside. Oh – can’t lay that on anyone else, can I?
“People grow through experience if they meet life honestly and courageously. This is how character is built.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
There’s two kinds of guilt mostly, real guilt and false guilt. Both suck, both can cripple you if you allow them to. One should motivate you to change, the other just tries to keep you down and you need to kick it to the curb.
When my 10year old begs me to let him have potato chips and ice cream for breakfast and I say ‘no,’ his attitude about that decision can heap on a thick layer of false guilt. “Tommy’s mom lets him…” It’s false guilt because I haven’t done anything wrong. I haven’t violated any social, ethical or moral law by refusing him. I’ve made him unhappy, but sometimes being mom makes you the bad guy. It’s in the fine print somewhere, it’s highlighted in yellow.
On the other hand, when I break a promise to my kids I feel genuine guilt because that’s something I really try and come through on, something I require of myself. That guilt should lead to remorse and a change in my behavior – me trying harder to keep my promises to my kids.
Anyone who’s tried to live up to a parent’s unrealistic expectations understands false guilt. Guilt, and it’s close cousin shame, are motivational weapons of choice for some people. As a child I was often bullied into doing things I didn’t want to do (like go to the dentist) with guilt and shame: “You’re embarrassing me.” “Stop being a baby.”
I’m well acquainted with false guilt. It will tie your hands behind your back, and duct tape you to a chair to keep you from moving on. It can keep you in a difficult or harmful situation, and sometimes there’s no possible way you can redeem yourself. That’s where I’m at.
So…what to do?
Part of me wants to fight back because I don’t think choosing me for a change makes me a villain. Part of me wants to quietly give in and keep up the charade and let that part of me die – because it seems easier, because there’s still this irritating need inside me to please others (keep the peace) at any cost.
What am I really going to do? Nothing. I’m going to put on my big girl panties and suck it up. Not in the I’m-taking-my-ball-home-and-you-can’t-play-with-it sense, but rather in a ‘I’m sorry you feel that way’ attitude. That’s how I know this is the right thing to do, because I can turn the other cheek without bitterness.
Telling the difference
It’s important to learn how to tell the difference between real and false guilt. I’m no expert but these are a few of the things I ask myself when I’m trying to decide if I’m feeling real or false guilt:
Have I broken a moral or civil law? If yes, then you’re experiencing real guilt. Some guilt is heaped on by traditions or social customs – and it’s really difficult to wade through that emotional tsunami, but worth the effort. If you’ve murdered someone and stuffed their body in a closet – and you feel guilty, that’s genuine guilt. (Get some help) Have you lied, stolen, coerced, abused, manipulated, cheated, etc? If you’ve ended an abusive relationship and feel guilty – that’s false guilt. (Guilt is not the same as disappointment, heartbreak, or even mourning.)
Does this guilt motivate me to want to do better, make a change – or does it just keep me down? Now – I’m going to assume no one reading this is a sociopath and your moral compass functions with a fair amount of accuracy on this one. If the guilt/shame’s only function is to keep you down, then take another look and see if this is a burden you need to own or not.
Is this guilt because of something I have or haven’t done, or is it really about the other person? You can’t please everyone, and some people see no problem in deflecting their own anger and frustration onto you. Let them own that, don’t carry it around yourself.
Do you struggle with false guilt? How do you handle being the ‘bad guy’? What tips do you have for recognizing false guilt?
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