Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Guilties

This is such an amazing description of how I feel most of the time. A dear dear friend of mine sent it to me who has so many many illnesses with which she battles. For her, this has been going on for a long long time. I can't imagine how it must be emotionally but I do hope life is NOT making her suffer guilties any longer.

She passed this along to me while the doctors were still trying to figure out what was wrong with me. I have a diagnosis now which is always a good thing. It's helpful to know WHAT is wrong... Not knowing is so disenheartening; trying; frustrating. All of that adds to the stress of being sick, making the sickness worse. Stress does horrible things to all illnesses...


Guilt is an unwanted shame-based emotion which results from having broken a rule. The rule may or may not make sense; therefore, the guilt may or may not be rational. When we run a red light or intentionally hurt another, we feel rational guilt; that is, remorse for having committed a wrongdoing. When we feel we should "perform" as we did before we became ill, that our houses should be spotless, that we should adhere to the same exhausting work schedule, that our children should be perfect and perfectly cared for, we experience guilt of the irrational variety. What rules have we broken?

Let's examine some of the rules we've imposed upon ourselves. (They didn't originate with us, but we've learned them well.):

It's not okay to be ill.
I should be able to conquer or overcome this disease.
I should take care of others, even at my own expense.
I should meet others' expectations of me.
I shouldn't stay in bed.
I shouldn't have needs or require special consideration.
It’s my job to make sure the household/office runs smoothly.
Others are entitled to have needs; I am not.
To ask for help is a sign of weakness.
If someone makes a request, I should assent so that I stay in their good graces.
It’s my job to be the helper, the magic fixer, so that I can read minds and meet others’ needs before they are even aware of them.
Corollary: I don’t expect others to do the same for me.
What others do is a reflection on me.
Others will not like me if I don’t do what they want me to do.

These rules contain a preponderance of shoulds, the dirtiest word in the English language. “Shoulda, coulda, woulda” may sum up the self-expectations, regrets and the lost idealized outcomes of our past and present behavior. Shouldas nag at us; they dictate what we do and how we feel. When we break a should, we feel shame and guilt. It's time to stop this nonsense and to stop shouldaing on ourselves.


When we clean out a closet, we often sort the contents into three groups: things to keep, things to discard, and things to fix so they work for us. We need to clean out our “rules closets” to see what’s in there: which rules to keep, which ones to discard, and which ones to fix to fit present circumstances.

Our new, rational messages or rules can replace the outdated, rigid, unforgiving ones. For a start I propose these:

My first priority is to take care of myself. If I don't do this, I can't do
anything else successfully.

Others will just have to understand my limitations. I will try to educate
them by explaining my illness and resulting limitations to whatever degree is
appropriate to the situation.

I accept (but do not like the fact) that not everyone will be willing to
learn and understand. If I they cannot or will not understand, it's not
my problem.

I don’t have to make excuses for what I cannot do. I will offer a brief
explanation when appropriate.

I'd will strive to be the best parent/partner/friend I can, given my
illness-related limitations.

It's okay to be ill and to have needs. I may have difficulty accepting
and expressing my needs, but I’m not going to judge them any more.

I will help others as I am able, but I will no longer rescue them.
(That is, I will not do for them what they can and should do for themselves.)

I will do what I can when I can do it. I won't force myself or push
beyond reasonable limits. I will not jeopardize my health to meet an
unreasonable expectation.

In responding to requests, I will keep in mind that there are appropriate
times to say no and to set limits. In doing so, I am not refusing a person; I
am refusing a request. I can respond assertively by saying, “I won’t be able
to help you out this tme, but I am willing to help you identify alternatives
for getting the job done.”

You have thus acknowledged their need, your willingness to help, and your
unwillingness to take on the task -- all in one short phrase. If this is
difficult for you, as it is for most people, consider taking a class
inassertiveness training or reading books on this subject.

It’s okay for me to ask for help. Although I would like to do everything
myself, it is not in my best interests to do so.

I will be specific when making a request. For example, rather than saying, “I
hate to ask you, but I really need extra help right now,” make a clearer, more
rational statement such as, “Due to my limitations, I am unable to run many
errands. Would you be willing to pick up a few things for me at the store?” In
this request, you have acknowledged your limitation or need, specified your
request, and requested a response. When people come through for you, give
them your thanks and appreciation in return.

What others do is a reflection of their situations, likes and dislikes
rather than a reflection on me. For example, if my spouse wears
something awful or tells a joke I don’t approve of, it’s not my problem!

I deserve to treat myself kindly and with respect.

I deserve to receive the same treatment from others, and to offer it to them in

Those who have unreasonable expectations of me will have to learn
that I have limits and boundaries. If they cannot accept these, they are not
true friends.

I will be flexible in my self-expectations.


We’ve been taught to believe that to be selfish is to unreasonably want something we want but do not have. The negative connotation “I want what’s yours” gives rise to selfishness being considered a major felony. However, the positive side of selfishness, self care, allows us to treat ourselves (and thus others) well. Taking care of oneself comes first. We cannot meet others’ needs if our own are unmet. This is like trying to get money out of an account into which we haven’t deposited any money. To keep the account “in the black,” we must make periodic deposits and allow others to do likewise. In the process, we learn to balance our needs with others’ needs, and everyone wins.


Guilt cannot be erased, but it can be gradually reduced as we become more sensible in our self-expectations and self-messages. The big challenge is to learn to live more rationally and to discard what no longer make sense or no longer works. Revising the rulebook and making behavioral changes is a great way to start.

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