Guilt: The Pink Elephant In The Room
I hate to feel guilt. Yet, women tend to feel this uncomfortable emotion much more than men.
Sometimes guilt can be a good thing….
Guilt has a way of keeping us honest, and true to our values…to an extent.
When we feel guilt due to something that we think we have done wrong, it can drive us to make the wrong, right.
The action of fixing a wrong can alleviate the guilt.
However, guilt has a dark side...
Guilt-ridden thoughts can be recurrent.
Often we will try to cope with the uncomfortable feeling of guilt by reacting with damaging behaviors.
The Elephant in the Room: A Woman’s Guilt
For many women, we feel guilt every day.
Well, if you are a woman, I am sure you can run down a list of things that you were expected to do (by you or someone else) but didn’t, or didn’t do “well enough.”
That tends to bring up a whole heap of guilt.
We, as women, have unrealistic expectations for ourselves. As a result the guilt that comes up can diminish our sense of self-worth.
But the thing is, we didn’t come up with these crazy expectations all on our own. Although some might like to think otherwise, we base these expectations, and often our self-worth, on what we see around us.
Our society’s expectation of women is immense and often confusing.
The expectations that women and society have are often oxymoronic and unrealistic.
“Women today . . . [have a feeling of disappointment] that we haven’t succeeded in doing it all or in mastering every opportunity that comes our way” (excerpt from “The Body Myth” by Margo Maine and Joe Kelly, p.54)
These days women have an overwhelming amount of responsibility.
Women are expected to have wildly successful careers--but not too successful because they cannot overshadow their male partners. They should be raising a family before they get too old, and be a hands-on mom while kicking ass at their careers.
Also, they should be extremely thin and in shape so they are nice to look at.
In summary, women should be the caregiver but also the independent career woman with a nice ass.
“[Women] feel like [they] must focus on money and [their] career. But [they] must also do child rearing, manage family logistics, and nurture the emotional life of marriage” (excerpt from “The Body Myth” by Margo Maine and Joe Kelly, p.55).
Women are expected to emulate superwoman and if they can't measure up guilt is not far behind.
But How Does Guilt Affect Body Image?
The cyclical damaging guilty thoughts often interact with our self-worth...negatively.
We use our bodies as a way to cope with what is going on in our lives. Rather than working through seemingly abstract, difficult feelings and thoughts associated with lack of self-worth, we focus our energies toward creating a "perfect" body. The actions needed to be thin, restricting food, exercising, etc., are more concrete and the outcomes are measurable like weight, and clothing size.
We use our body’s shape as a way to focus on something that we think we can control, and should control.
As a result of our society's notion of success, a woman’s self-worth is often attached to her body image.
However, myths are just stories that help us make sense of what is going on in our lives, and they are inherently engrained in our society. By binding family culture and the culture at large, myths become reinforced in our perception of reality.
Stopping the Cycle
I have two ways to illustrate how guilt affects the relationship between self-worth and body image.
Think of your goodness as a pair of scissors and we are using those scissors to detach our self-worth from our body image.
On the other hand, I think of guilt as part of the rope fibers. Guilt makes up a few of the fibers that intertwine together to make the rope that keeps our self-worth and body image stuck together.
Once we become aware and eventually let go the guilt, the rope will weaken.
Here is another way to look at this relationship between guilt, self-worth, and body image.*
We can think of guilt as part of an equation.
Guilt interacts with our body image (dependent variable), which is directly connected to your self-worth (independent variable).
Self-worth = Body Image*Guilt
Guilt affects the relationship between body image and self-worth.
Different Ways This Relationship Can Play Out:
We rely more on our thinness to bolster our self-worth. This pushs us to become even more strict with our exercise and calorie intake with the hope of creating a thinner body.
Or we might use food as a distraction from the thoughts that are causing us to feel guilt in the first place. Emotional eating is a way to escape the guilt.
I used food and exercise as a way to escape uncomfortable emotions. I would emotionally eat to avoid thinking about the emotion that made me so uncomfortable. Subsequently, I became too preoccupied with berating myself for overeating, I didn't have to think about what caused the overeating in the first place.
If we can let go of the guilt by becoming aware of the thoughts that cause our guilt, we may not need to rely so heavily on our body image to boost our self-worth.
Letting go of guilt is another way to weaken the tie between self-worth and body image.
How Can We Let Go of the Guilt?
By becoming aware.
Our minds like to repeat the same thoughts over and over again. With repetition, those thoughts will start to become part of our greater belief system.
That is how the guilt becomes automatic, which leads us to feel stuck.
Guilt is just an emotion, a vibration in your body.
But we know from the model that in order to feel guilt, a thought has to proceed the emotion.
When you start to feel guilt, do a thought inventory.
Write down all of your thoughts. Don't judge them. Don't censor yourself. Just write.
Remember there is a thought somewhere that is causing you to feel guilt.
Once you are able to connect a thought with the guilt, run a model.
What do you do when you experience guilt? Do you overeat? Do you over exercise? What is the result of that action?
Writing out this model with help you see the direct relationship with your thoughts and your results.
Now you sit back and watch….
Next time, notice when guilt arises. What thought brings up the guilt?
Is it the same theme?
When I did this, I noticed I feel guilt when I think I didn't do enough.
This guilt is entrenched in my belief about my self-worth.
That is OK.
Just becoming aware of our thoughts is the first step to changing them.
Remember, we create our thoughts and therefore we can change them.
By changing our thoughts we will change our lives.
We are all just learning.
Life is a journey, so let's start with awareness.
Much love and grace,
*This is where I have to indulge my researcher side, so please ignore this example if the cloud and boulder resonate with you more.