My Guilt Does Not Make the World Go Around

A few weeks ago my husband and I took our daughters to see the musical Wicked.  Our seats were high up and cramped, but we managed to enjoy the first act and get some good stretches in during intermission.  Sometime during the second act, my husband leaned over and complained he was feeling sick.  His options for leaving would have caused an inconvenience to many, and his anxiety over feeling trapped only made him more upset.

As my husband struggled with deciding what to do, I found myself hyper aware of his every move.  No longer was I enjoying the performance before me; I was instead overcome with a sense of…guilt.  Guilt that I was feeling fine while he was not.  Guilt that there was nothing I could do to immediately fix it.  Guilt that I had bought cheap tickets and put us up in Timbuktu.

Until a voice told me:  STOP.

I was feeling fine, so I ought to enjoy the show.  He was a big boy and could decided for himself how to resolve his situation.  We only had so many resources with which to treat ourselves to a show.  Once I let those realizations wash over me, I was able to get right back into my reality and enjoy the rest of the show.

And you know what?  Everything turned out just fine.  My husband was fine.  The world kept turning.  I let go of my irrational guilt, and the world kept turning.

But this is what I do – I take on everyone’s pains.  Emotional, physical, mental – I take them upon myself and suffer for their sufferings. 

Oh, how Mother Teresa of me, right?  Not so much.  How about self-indulgent?  How about narcissistic?  How about a giant waste of time and energy?

For years I’ve had this same knee-jerk reaction to anything out of sorts.  I somehow translate compassion into guilt, and find myself affected by needing to cradle others’ pains.  As if it’s a fragile thing that if dropped, will shatter the order of things.

I am all apologies.  Have you ever said, “I’m sorry” when someone tells you bad news?  Maybe it’s an abbreviation of “I’m sorry this happened to you,” but for me, it’s often a real “I’m sorry,” as if I did something wrong.

I don’t know where this attitude stems from, or how it’s evolved over the years.  But I do know that with my husband and kids, I’ve managed to steal a little of their own ability to endure.  Motivated by my senseless guilt over trivial things, I often swoop in to spare them from discomfort or frustration.  It’s made them emotionally dependent on me, and maybe on some level that gave me a sense of power and worth.  But now all it gives me is a headache.

On my recent trip to New York City for BlogHer, I got a call from my husband detailing the many crises going on at home.  I was tempted to let that call take me out, so to speak, and affect the rest of my weekend.  Instead, I took a step back and ended the call with, “I understand things are really stressful there right now.  But I’m going to have to leave it to you to resolve.”

Build an emotional shield.  Let go of the guilt.  Exercise a little trust.  Endow someone with the tools and confidence to take care of a situation themselves.  That’s my new strategy.

My guilt does not make the world go around.  And the good news is, neither does yours.

  • Wow, you described me to a tee. I was at Blogher also (too bad we didn’t get to meet) and my husband did the same thing. I also told myself, he is a big boy and could handle it. It also went fine. I am going to read your post over and over until it sinks in. I’m so happy you wrote this out because I needed to hear this.

    So grateful you don’t feel guilty anymore,

    Boni

  • Anonymous

    It might have taken you a little while to come to that conclusion but if you continue to reinforce those feelings of ‘others can endure and resolve’ without you as a constant crutch you will feel so much better for it. 🙂

  • I struggle with this with my husband. If he’s upset, I get upset at the same thing. If he’s struggling, I *have* to figure out a way to help him. If he’s in pain, I can’t be comfortable. I need to figure out a balance between being his helpmate and letting him deal with life on his own.

  • I absolutely agree! Thanks so much for the comment!

  • Hi, Boni! BlogHer was such a zoo – I made some great connections, but am keenly aware of how many other awesome women (like you, I’m sure!) I missed getting to meet. I’m glad some part of this post helped you – I wrote it out because I needed it to be more permanent than just the thoughts that are swirling in my head. I’ll be 37 next month and I feel like it’s time to liberate myself from worrisome, guilty thinking. Good luck to BOTH of us! 🙂

  • Kimatsprig

    What a timely post. I have been doing the same, taking on some much of others responsibilities and guilt because of them that I no longer know what is mine by rights, what I should really be meaningfully apologetic for and what is just not my fault. I am working on it though. Good to know I am not alone on the journey!

  • Yes! – “no longer know what is mine by rights” is a perfect way to put it. When I closed by saying that I am building an emotional shield, it’s not that I’m trying to keep people out, it’s that I’m trying to more clearly delineate where I end and others start. It all goes towards trying to clarify a notion of “self” and then to move from that into how I can help or be there for others. I’m glad for your good company on this journey, too! 🙂

  • I struggle with this with my husband. If he’s upset, I get upset at the same thing. If he’s struggling, I *have* to figure out a way to help him. If he’s in pain, I can’t be comfortable. I need to figure out a balance between being his helpmate and letting him deal with life on his own.

  • “Do for them what they cannot do for themselves.” It’s a philospophy I wish I could live by, because it really does imply a good balance between stepping in and standing by. And as you mention, it really is all about balance, isn’t it? 🙂 Thanks so much for the comment, Ashley!

  • Anonymous

    Great Post, and I need to put it to work in my own life.

  • From the comments, it looks like there’s a lot of us in that same boat. 🙂

  • Becca

    What a great post! I think too many of us (especially females) take on the burden, guilt, responsibility, etc of others. I know I always find myself befriending people who need just a little bit extra taking care of…sigh

  • Thanks for stopping by to comment, Becca! I know what you mean about gravitating towards those who need that shoulder to lean on. I find I do that, too, but have to always be mindful of how much energy it might be taking from me to be that friend. What a tender balance it is!