One of the biggest barriers to truly looking after ourselves – and thereby preventing burnout – is guilt.
The breath-shortening, stomach-dropping sensation in our bodies – and the associated taunts and stories that flood our minds – the voice that speaks to our laziness, our lack of productivity or our inadequacy as a mum, partner, colleague or friend.
That unshakeable feeling we should be doing something other than what we choose to be doing.
It’s unsurprising, I guess – since we have been subconsciously receiving messages about minimizing our own needs at the expense of others since we were little girls.
So why do we feel guilty and how can we prevent it from trashing our intentions to practice self care – or more importantly, self expression?
Guilt occurs from a subtle conflation of three things – sensation, beliefs and thoughts.
First, the sensation in our bodies. Most often this sensation, when interrogated, is a mixture of fear and shame – a gentle fluttering of the area between the chest and stomach and a dropping feeling lower down in the hips and lower abdomen. Sensation on its own can be felt, explored, witnessed. We can gently observe the pulsing of the guilt – the restlessness, the agitation, the inability to relax into whatever we are choosing to do. But we do not need to act on it.
It is when the mind joins this party, that things become reeeeeallly guilt-inducing. We interpret the fear in our bodies as evidence as to why we really shouldn’t be doing yoga, or sitting down to write, or taking five minutes to meditate – the sensation, filtered through our beliefs, become thoughts. Lots of them.
I like to think that guilt can be traced back to the trifecta of limiting beliefs that womankind has embodied (my worth is tied up in my ability to be productive; I cannot receive without giving; I must suffer to succeed) – beliefs that reside in our very consciousness as modern day women. Beliefs that, ultimately, create burnout.
I said above that guilt often feels like fear…. which, when we think about it, speaks to just how big a threat to our own survival we perceive taking care of ourselves to be. When we step back and realise ‘my body has gone into fight or flight… which means I’m perceiving that doing something for myself is going to cause me pain or death’, we can start to understand the weight that these beliefs carry in our subconscious. These beliefs were formed to keep our ego safe – to keep us belonging in the pack. Women have learned over generations to give to others, to become indispensible in order to survive. Powerful women were literally burned at the stake… and our nervous systems remember.
So as these thoughts begin to drip through the distorted beliefs and into the mind, they flow into the well-worn rivers of our stories. The story that tells us that we can’t possibly manage five minutes a day to meditate. The story about how our bodies can’t stretch or move. The story about how tired we are. The story of how much our families/workplaces/spouses need us.
Without beliefs, though, the stories don’t have as much potency. And so it is in them that we can start to shift the feelings of guilt and break free from the conditioning that has burdened women for eons. Are these stories actually true?
Guilt, you see, has been used against women as long as the distorted masculine structures have come to pervade our existence. It has been reinforced by capitalism, and to a certain extent, even the wellness industry which subtly and yet persistently tells us that how we are, who we are, and what we are choosing to do with our time, is wrong. And so the wound beneath the wound of guilt is, in fact, a deep-seated discomfort with our very essence – with our very being. We are broken. There is something wrong with us.
In this strange way, I believe guilt offers an escape for us from our suffering. Guilt feels productive in that it keeps us fretting, moving, working and giving. It does not allow us to settle long enough to feel the wounding – to breathe into the sadness, to witness the contraction of our bodies – energy stuck in response to years and years of holding onto the deep, dark secret of suspecting that there is something fundamentally wrong with us.
Guilt, like worry, is addictive. It is an endless distraction from the hard, and yet glorious work of sitting with discomfort and perhaps, if we sit there long enough, touching peace on the other side. And so, we create elaborate ways to continue our relationship with guilt – choosing to limit ourselves in our expression, in our growth, in our potential in order to never feel the wounds that haunt our waking hours. Coincidentally, we also engage in this escapism by keeping ourselves busy (overworking), obsessing about fixing ourselves (over-correcting) or fixating on giving to others (overgiving) – outward projections that stop us from ever having to touch the pain within.
But self care is an internal job. Is it not an external thing to be chased or owned. Internal validation is self care.
I have many clients who fear that engaging in self care will make them selfish or self centered. I ask them why it is bad to be self centered? Since etiologically to be self centered means that she, as a woman, would be residing in her wholeness, understanding her magnificence, and cherishing herself enough so that she could, in turn, hold space for others to grow and be.
I have other clients who believe that they need to serve penance for indulging in self care and others who have a quota system in place – at a certain point being unable to receive anymore love, care or acceptance for themselves or others.
We already have the guilt embedded in our cells – we often do not find problems in giving and working more. We must give ourselves enough credit and trust our inner wisdom enough to know that when our self care actions begin to hurt others (like, in actual reality, not in our perceptions), our guilt will steer us back to equilibrium.
No, our challenge is learning to be more selfish. Our challenge is to remember what we know deep down – that to give, we must feel taken care of. And to look and listen to the rebound in ourselves and others when we do take care of ourselves, and witness just how capable we and those around us truly are. Love, rather than action, is enough. And we all have that in spades.
We all have our own unique blend of beliefs on which we have come to make sense of the world – and our role within it. Our job, as women who wish not only to walk a path of authenticity in our own lives, but who also wish to make an impact in the world, the most powerful thing we can do is ask ourselves if these beliefs – these pillars – are really true, and to start to imagine a world wherein maybe, just maybe, they weren’t.
It is in doing this, I believe, I am taking active responsibility for the beliefs that my daughter and nephews grow up building their world upon – and what could be more caring, and less selfish, than that?
The truth is that I don’t believe we should aim to get rid of guilt. It will likely always be part of our lives –and rightly so guilt can prompt us to take important action.
But when guilt becomes the norm – when guilt is all-consuming – and most importantly when guilt prevents us from taking care of this, our most sacred vessel (the very vessel that allows us to care for others and watch the sunrises and feel the moist rainforest air on our skin) – it is time for us to ask ourselves whether the pain and resentment of serving others is worth it in order to avoid what are essentially strong sensations in our bodies?
Perhaps it is, as I always say, all in the redefining of self care. Self care is not escapism – it is in the daily reflection of our feelings and the subsequent honouring of our needs. It is the times when we say ‘I need help’. It is the ugly crying in the shower. It is the yelling on a mountaintop. It is the lying in the sun for an extra ten minutes. It is in the big, releasing sighs. It is in the sitting with the discomfort – because there is something within you that isn’t broken and she is worth staying for. She is worth looking after.
Wherever you’re at in your relationship with guilt – take heart, dear sister, that you are not alone. We are all learning and deconstructing this together – and from each other we can draw comfort and resilience. This post is not an invitation to double down on your efforts to ‘be better at self care’. No, this is an invitation to explore and question and feel. These are your feminine gifts – and they have been residing in you all along.
I’ve been having a lot of calls this week with women who are feeling called to work one-one as part of the Awaken coaching program,. If you would like to chat about whether working in this way would support your intention to better care for and nourish yourself, book your Awaken discovery call here. There are three and six months options available – and just a few places left beginning February.