I remember the first time I felt guilt very clearly. I was about four or five, and on a visit to a family friend’s house, I stole a piece of circular, yellow lego that resembled a plastic ring. I had wanted a gold ring like my mum’s and when the opportunity presented itself, I took it. On the drive home I felt increasingly bad – the lego piece wasn’t mine, in fact it wasn’t even a ring, it was part of a Native American legoman’s headband and I was sure that my friend would miss the piece and tell on me. I hid the ‘ring’ for a week and eventually threw it in the bushes near my house. I couldn’t bear to wear my ‘ring’ because I felt so intensely guilty.
That was twenty-one years ago, but guilt has followed me around like a bad smell ever since. I grew up in a loving home, and I was the first born of four, born to very religious parents. My parents always recall how easy I was as a child, how perfectly behaved and quiet I was. Whereas my other siblings pushed boundaries and were at times grounded more often than not, I went through my childhood and my teen years with one solitary school detention to my name. I was never grounded or smacked. All my parents had to do to discipline me as a young child, apparently, was give me a ‘look’ and I would dissolve into tears, utterly repentant. Until I went to university I had never smoked, sworn, gotten drunk or gone further than ‘first base’. Mostly because it had never really occurred to me to do any of these things – simply because I knew my parents would be disappointed in me if I did. The guilt factor – I may not have been a people-pleaser, but I was most definitely a parent-pleaser.
At university I made up for lost time, by doing all of the things I mentioned above – I got wasted on booze regularly, began smoking a pack a day (nuts!), dabbled with drugs, and got involved with boys who I knew I’d never be able to take home. With my parents out of the picture I was free from the trappings of guilt – or so I thought. But there were the phone calls from home every other week – wondering had I been to church? Why was I in a bar when I had an exam the next day? And so on. I lost my way towards the end of first year. I grew more and more depressed and studied less and less. I went to a handful of lectures, and slept most of my days away. The guiltier I felt about not working hard enough the more depressed I became and the less I worked. It was a vicious cycle and one I could handle in only one way – cutting myself.
The cutting ritual relieved the guilt, the shame and the anxiety I felt over a myriad of issues – why I wasn’t thin enough, why I ate too much, why I wasn’t going to lectures, why I had lost my faith, why I was turning out to be someone completely different to who I thought I was and who my parents thought I was. I even felt guilty for being depressed when I had so many people who loved me and a life which held nothing to be depressed about! But that’s another story.
I got help for my anxiety, for my guilt. I was put in therapy and given anti-depressants. I stopped cutting and started loving myself. I found a man who loved me too, and whom I could take home. I was honest with my parents and they loved me still. Yet guilt is still a Gollum-like creature who follows me around.
I feel guilty countless times a day for countless reasons – some of which are rational and deserved and some of which are straight-up neurotic, here are a mere handful of examples:
I feel guilty for not calling my sisters often enough and not talking to my parents as regularly as I should.
I feel guilty if I don’t manage to meet up with my friends as often as I should.
I feel guilty for not staying in touch with people who I’ve moved away from.
I feel guilty for spending too much money on things I don’t need.
I feel guilty for not saving enough money.
I feel guilty for spending my weekend doing nothing but reading and watching crappy addictive TV, even though I’m knackered from a week’s work.
I feel guilty if I visit my in-laws more than my parents, or my parents more than my in-laws.
I feel guilty for missing birthdays – especially my uncle’s, as his is on the same day as my own!
I feel guilty if I eat too much, or exercise too little.
I feel guilty if I eat too little and take my sugar low out on others.
I feel guilty for not cleaning the house as often as I should.
I feel guilty for resenting my husband if he doesn’t clean the house as much as he should.
I feel guilty if I’m not having enough sex, or enough kinky sex.
I feel guilty if I’m not performing in work – or rather, if the kids I teach aren’t performing as they should.
I feel guilty for being white and having a privileged upbringing.
I feel guilty for feeling guilty and stressed and self-involved when there are so many other things that matter more.
Guilt is a force to be reckoned with – it can sometimes be a motivating force in my life, albeit a negative one. But all too often it deflates me, removes hope and tells me I can never do better. Too often it makes me give up trying to do / undo the things I felt guilty about in the first place! This, in turn, makes me feel even guiltier.
I think we are the guilt-generation: we are the women that are supposed to have it all and be it all in a society that pulls us in a million different directions. And it’s hard to beat away the guilt that we feel when we don’t have it all and when we aren’t all things to all people.