“A close colleague of unworthiness, walking hand in hand with it through our heart and mind, is guilt.”
– Joseph Goldstein
My mom was a stay at home mom. When I would share that story as part of a retrospective of my childhood I find myself saying, “I love that she was full-on mom.” While I lift that up as a positive thing, I feel a tug of many other emotions and notions about her putting off any sense of sturdy, well-recognized career. In my mom’s world, when she graduated from high school she got a sewing machine. College wasn’t expected; it was for those with other ambitions. The message she received was ‘get married and start a family’ (where that sewing machine came in quite handy). When I think back to my childhood and relish that Mom was always around for us, and I often wonder if she wanted to do both, or if she fell prey to the guilt that comes with choices laden with eternal expectations.
I’m not sure if I received the subtle message many women receive that you could have one or the other – the kids or the career – but not both. I did not, however, choose to be a parent. I often wonder how parents do parenting in the first place. After tending to that labor of love, how do they have time for anything else? Yet, I watch friends and colleagues do both family and career and side passion projects on top of all of that, and juggle the multifaceted feelings that arise in doing so.
An accomplished woman I knew from the functional medicine clinic I frequented was finishing an advanced nursing degree (on top of a long line of other degrees), being a wife, a mother to two girls (19 and 23), tending to a home and pets, all while working full time at the clinic which was over a half an hour from her home. “I feel like I’m failing in all areas of life,” she confessed one day. “As if I don’t have time to do any one thing really well.”
There it was: guilt. Guilt that when she was studying on the weekends, she wasn’t spending time with her husband. Guilt that when she was working long days, she wasn’t as present for her girls. Nevertheless, she kept it all together with great aplomb, ready for whatever challenge was up that moment – whether it was making a family-style Sunday meal, or managing an IV room filled with chronically ill patients.
Melissa Pasquale, our podcast guest in conversation with Jerry in this episode, talks about the tensions of parenting and raising a family while having a career, what she views as an overlooked topic in startup and tech communities. She notes from her own experience that,
“Being a mother of three kids, it’s a challenge to balance being a mom and trying to grow my career in a challenging industry. … I experience a lot of guilt about not being around for my kids as much because I’m working and I’m traveling. Can I effectively do both of these very important things— running a company as well as raising a family? They very often come up against each other and I have to make choices. I’m always worried that I’m going to fail at a one or the other.”
Hand in hand with that guilt, as Joseph Goldstein notes in the quote above, is a sense of our unworthiness. How we view ourselves and garner our sense of self-worth is in relationship to the expectations we feel around what we’re supposed to be doing by an externalized sense of self or an externalized list of shoulds, what’s right and wrong, and general commentary on how to live our life. ‘You can’t have kids and a career,’ is one such bit of commentary. How to be as a parent these days is another. Just those two sound bites alone create a lot of pressure on being fully human in this modern day reality of working parents. If we feel we’re not measuring up to any external standards, we’ll feel like we’re failing at all of them.
How do we take back standards for ourselves in our unique place in space? How do we trust what we know to be true for us? What stops us from finding the freedom and grace that comes from doing it our own way?
In her book, A Uterus Is A Feature, Not A Bug: The Working Women’s Guide to Overthrowing the Patriarchy, author Sarah Lacy writes:
“We need to start believing that we have a right to live the lives we want, that having a career isn’t a negotiation you win with your “50/50” spouse. That you will be paid equally. That you have the right to have a baby when you want to, or not have a baby at all.
“And we have to help one another. We have to stop being our own worst enemy. We are both victims of the patriarchy… and part of it. We do the patriarchy’s dirty work every time we tell ourselves we aren’t enough, every time we lift ourselves up at the expense of other women, and especially every time we allow ourselves to feel guilt.
“Guilt is the most effective weapon the patriarchy has. It both keeps us from achieving and makes us feel bad about it when we do achieve. Guilt pits us against “patriarchs” like spouses and male bosses. Guilt is so effective because it’s self-inflicted. Guilt makes you doubt everything you know in your heart, in your head, in your gut. Guilt is the patriarchy’s evil little voice inside you. It has to go.”
(To be clear this isn’t just about women. Everyone suffers, both men and women, under the burden of the patriarchy.)
To put it poetically:
i will tell you, my daughter
of your worth
not your beauty
everyday. (your beauty is a given. every being is born beautiful)
knowing your worth
can save your life.
raising you on beauty alone,
you will be starved.
you will be raw.
you will be weak.
an easy stomach.
always in need of someone telling you how beautiful you are.
– emotional nutrition, by nayyirah waheed
Guilt often comes to us as a form of self-judgement against some external expectation in which we didn’t measure up. You may hear this most often as dietary expectations that fell short (if it was for that chocolate cake…), exercise that didn’t happen as intended, not remembering to send out birthday or holiday cards, etc. Yet, when we fulfill the list of external expectations laid out for us, we feel like we’ve done what we were told, and reap the positive feeling reward of meeting someone else’s expectation. We are rewarded of our beauty, not our worth; “an easy stomach in need of someone” to tell us how beautiful we are.
In a piece from the On Being blog, Getting Over Guilt, our friend Sharon Salzberg writes that guilt is driven by self-hatred and can keep us caught in a cycle of self-judgement and piled on guilt. We think of how we could have done more, been better, tried harder as if our repeated ruminations will make it better. She notes that “torturing ourselves is not a form of atonement. It merely makes us weary and more likely to act out in other facets of life as a result of feeling self-deprecated and inadequate.”
In her book LovingKindness, Sharon further notes that guilt doesn’t work the way we often think it does, especially in terms of being a motivator for genuine actions. It ends up doing the opposite, leaving us spinning in our own vortex (or as Dr. Judson Brewer might refer to it, lighting up the self-reflexive part of our brain like a Christmas tree, a very addictive and self-centered place to be):
“…guilt can be deceptive. We may feel that guilt can be a noble force to motivate us to serve others or perform wholesome actions. But guilt does not actually work in that way. When one is motivated by guilt or grief, one’s own pain is center stage, just as when one is motivated by anger, one’s outrage is center stage. When such feelings take the central role, we may lose consideration of what somebody else may actually need.”
Guilt disengages us from properly engaging with life and all of the things in it, like our families and our work. Unhinging from the cycle of looking outside ourselves for approval, to know what to do or how to be, means unhinging from letting someone/something tell you your worth to knowing your worth deep in your bones and cellular matter. Setting out into life from that place – fully aware of how guilt may try to take you down, and not succumbing to its sticky trap – makes all the difference.
When life is lived according to your own playbook, you set the standards for what you want, what motivates you, and what you want to give your energy to. Your own playbook is not something to be consumed from the external world. As poet John O’Donohue puts it, it’s the voice of your own soul.
“When you take the time to draw on your listening-imagination, you will begin to hear this gentle voice at the heart of your life. It is deeper and surer than all the other voices of disappointment, unease, self-criticism and bleakness. All holiness is about learning to hear the voice of your own soul. It is always there and the more deeply you learn to listen, the greater surprises and discoveries that will unfold. To enter into the gentleness of your own soul changes the tone and quality of your life. Your life is no longer consumed by hunger for the next event, experience or achievement. You learn to come down from the treadmill and walk on the earth. You gain a new respect for yourself and others and you learn to see how wonderfully precious this one life is. You begin to see through the enchanting veils of illusion that you had taken for reality. You no longer squander yourself on things and situations that deplete your essence. You know now that your true source is not outside you. Your soul is your true source and a new energy and passion awakens in you.”
Giving ourselves permission to live from that place is something to model for our children. It’s perhaps is one of the best gifts you can give them, guilt-free.