The power of *not* doing thingsRachel Botsman
I made a promise to myself that I would take this summer off to spend time with my kids. Last year, I hated constantly carting them off to activity camps so that I could squeeze in work. I felt guilty, they felt guilty, and then I felt guilty about making them feel guilty. So, I decided to work hard all year to create the space to take proper time off. And now how am I feeling? A little guilty.
That guilt is compelling me to explain, even apologize, to people for taking a break to rest and have fun. It’s ridiculous, I know. All around me, I see people struggling with guilt: a nagging pressure that we’re not doing enough or are falling short on something important to us. That’s why this week we’re rethinking guilt — the type of guilt that rises although we’ve not done anything wrong. Should we rid ourselves of guilt or can it be constructive?
Flip the guilt trip
Guilt shows up in lots of different ways, on an almost-daily basis for many of us. That nagging, self-punishing feeling that can surface over just about anything. Am I working too hard? Or not enough? Am I doing enough on rights issues, climate change, or the war in Ukraine? Have I called my best friend lately? It’s a different version of the same narrative: I’m not a good enough parent, partner, citizen, friend, pet owner… I love this description of guilt: “It’s the emotional equivalent of wearing a jacket weighted with stones.”
I’ve always thought of guilt as a type of shame attached to stories we tell ourselves, that we’re not doing enough or that we’ve been given more than we’re entitled to.
Guilt says, “I owe you ___.”
Guilt and expectations
But I now see guilt as tied to unhealthy expectations — being overly optimistic about what we “should” accomplish in a day, week, or even on a summer holiday. Part of the problem stems from a culture of “to-do” lists.
Ask yourself this:
· Do you find it impossible to get everything on your “to-do” list done?
· Even if you worked harder or longer, do you think you’d ever get through every item on your list each day for one full week?
It’s no wonder we feel constantly agitated about what we didn’t do. The to-do list culture is setting us up for guilt.
The power of a “to-don’t’’ list
Whitney Johnson, author of Disrupt Yourself, advises to “right-size your list.” It’s a tricky adjustment because so much of our lives are programmed to “add” tasks and commitments — we’re not taught how to subtract. We’re not taught how to be comfortable being “less than.”
Here’s a tool I use to reframe guilt: I write a list of all the things I don’t want to do. It’s a powerful way to create the space to reflect on how I spend my time, who I spend it with, and what I want to focus on — and more importantly, not focus on. For example, my to-don’t list this month has five things on it:
· Do not apologise to people that you’re going away.
· Do not do favours because you’re trying to compensate for not working.
· Do not cram the holidays with activities.
· Do not think you can squeeze this little work thing in.
· Do not start another epic home/garden project because you have time.
What I found revealing about the to-don’t list is it highlights the constant pressure to be doing something, especially things that show we’re progressing at work or in life. The “to-don’t” list is a weapon against guilt. It’s a way of giving yourself permission to look at your priorities and limitations.
The key to breaking the zapping cycle of guilt is to reset expectations, especially the ones that are forced upon us.
True guilt vs. false guilt
Valorie Burton, author of Let Go of The Guilt: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Take Back Your Joy has some useful strategies to separate “true” guilt from “false” guilt. She makes the important distinction between doing something wrong versus feeling like you’ve done something wrong. The challenge is that true guilt and false guilt show up in our lives in similar ways. Both creating a feeling of debt.
In a wonderful Happiness Lab episode, Burton suggests becoming aware of guilt rising up before it influences your decisions or actions. “Ah, there is guilt, there it is.” The interruption can make us more intentional about our choices. “Why am I doing what I’m doing? Am I actually doing something wrong? Does this action line up with my values?”
In this sense, guilt can be constructive. When guilt comes up, it’s giving us an important message. It’s a guide to when our actions and choices are misaligned with our values: how we want to be working and living.
So, I’m not going to feel guilty about this: I’m taking a guilt-free break. See you in a few weeks!