|Dear Dr. Graham:
I feel guilty all the time. I feel guilty when I don’t spend enough time at work. When I work long hours, I feel guilty about not spending enough time at home. I feel guilty when my work product isn’t as good as it could be if I had more hours to spend on it. And when I spend too much time on one aspect of my job, I feel guilty for neglecting the other parts. I feel guilty when I have to turn down lunch invitations from friends, but I can’t enjoy a lunch date if there is something I “really should be doing” back at the office.
There’s simply not enough time for everything, so every decision I make leads to guilt. Do you have any suggestions for how can I crawl out from under this constant, heavy feeling?
Actually, I do have a suggestion, and it may be a timely one for others, too. About two years ago my business partner, Dr. Julie McDonald, made the decision to give up guilt for Lent. Here’s how she explained it: “Guilt is a feeling you should feel when you’ve done something wrong. Guilt is not a feeling you should feel when you haven’t done something wrong.” When those six weeks were over, she vowed to give up false guilt for good! While I’m Jewish, and therefore don’t observe Lent, I thought her decision was both beautiful and smart.
As Julie said, guilty feelings are useful only when you’ve done something wrong. So, your challenge is in differentiating what you should and shouldn’t feel guilty about. False guilt saps cognitive capacity. False guilt about work keeps us from optimal performance at work. False guilt also keeps us from enjoying our lives. The examples you cited in your question may make you feel disappointed, but they shouldn’t evoke guilt.
From what I understand, this year’s Lenten Season begins March 6. Whether or not you observe Lent, I think anyone could learn from Julie’s example. I suggest that you use the next six weeks to evaluate your guilty feelings by the standard of whether or not you have done something wrong, or whether you are just sad that you can’t do everything you’d like to do. By the end of that reflective period, you could be equipped to give up false guilt for good! (If you find yourself still struggling, it might be wise to seek counsel from a coach or counselor. Such an investment can pay big dividends, both in your career and your personal life.)
If you are ready to Lead at a Higher Level, consider joining my Facebook group to interact with other like-minded leaders. If you know someone in a similar scenario as “Abashed Boss” that could find my suggestions helpful, forward this email to your colleague (Thank you!). You may also submit questions for me to address in future newsletters here.