Are you guilty of feeling too guilty?
If you’re guilty as charged, give yourself a break and stop the self-blame game before those toxic thoughts take a toll on your mental health
In February last year, one of my Labrador Retrievers, Arwen (she was named after the beautiful elven princess from Lord Of The Rings), was struck with canine vestibular disease, a challenging neurological condition which robbed her of the ability to balance herself. As a result, Arwen was unable to sit or stand unassisted, and every attempt to walk ended up in her repeatedly stumbling over herself.
Arwen was 16 when the disease hit suddenly. In human years, she was already a centenarian. Yet, all her organs remained healthy (save for her damaged vestibular system). For the first four months, we held out hope – the initial prognosis pointed to Arwen’s condition being “old rolling dog syndrome” or what’s frequently referred to as “idiopathic vestibular disease” (“idiopathic” means that the source of the imbalance cannot be identified). Apparently, it’s fairly common for this condition to hit geriatric dogs, and the condition usually rights itself in a matter of days.
But as the days turned into weeks, and the weeks morphed into months, I started seeking help from one vet after another, desperate to find someone who could help Arwen. Arwen’s will to get up and go was super strong. She had always been a fighter and showed no signs of slowing down or giving up. How could I give up on her?
Numerous vets and alternative therapies later, I finally found a cocktail of supplements and medication that seemed to keep Arwen comfortable enough to enjoy a reasonable quality of life, despite losing her mobility. She had a great appetite, went out frequently for daily walks on her oversized doggy pram, and remained as spirited as ever.
By this time, I knew in my heart that Arwen was never going to physically recover. I’d explored every possible option I could find to help her regain her mobility – slings; harnesses; hammocks; modified stretchers; and doggy wheelchairs (I spent months unsuccessfully trying to DIY a customised one for her when none of the wheelchair-builders I approached for help were confident of taking on her case)… I’d tried them all and exhausted my options.
The best case scenario then, was to keep Arwen as comfy as I could, while giving her the best quality of life a dog in her condition could possibly have. All her organs were functioning fine and while her immobility frustrated her, she didn’t seem to be experiencing acute pain. My best friend introduced me to an animal communicator and her invaluable assistance provided me with better clarity about my decisions.
To be really honest, those 11 months were immensely challenging. Arwen refused to accept her condition. Whenever she was awake, she would try to get up and go. And inevitably, she would tumble hard onto the floor and hit the side of her face. But she would go through the same process again and again, refusing to give up until she was picked up and assisted into a standing position. This essentially meant that Arwen could never be left alone (she’d just end up injuring herself). Compounded by the fact that she slept only in short bursts during the day and often stayed up for most of the night, caring for her was a 24/7 job of heaving, cleaning, and feeding, on repeat. My health suffered badly during that period – I was running on three hours of sleep daily and trying to catch cat naps every time Arwen slept. I’d basically dropped everything I could to provide her with round-the-clock care because I didn’t want to burden anyone else (it was a tough gig because Arwen was a big, strong girl who needed constant heavy lifting).
I eventually ended up with a severe lower back injury that left me feeling rather useless… without the ability to even bend or sit unassisted, I was unable to care for my dog.
I hit one of the lowest points of my life and felt terribly guilty that I was failing as a caregiver. My dog was sick and she needed me, but physically I was unable to fulfil my role.
The reality was that I had done everything I could do for her, but I continued to beat myself up in my head, unwilling to forgive myself for something that wasn’t “my fault”. Subconsciously, that internal dialogue started seeping into my daily conversations and reflected in the way I communicated.
One day, I was chatting with a friend that I’d met through work, a lovely lady I’d instinctively connected to (perhaps because she’s also a workaholic mum-of-three struggling with the constant juggling of work and family). We were catching up when she suddenly said, “I just want to encourage you to free yourself from the notion of considering alternative options for Arwen as ‘taking the easy way out’.”
I was puzzled about what she meant.
“Your choice of words may be weighing you down” she gently pointed out, before adding, “Big hugs, Candy. You are a remarkable individual, strong beyond anyone else I know. And so full of love for everyone important to you.”
“When you can see the river, you are out of the river.”
– Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, author of Joyful Wisdom
As the “Happiest man in the world” Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche explains with his analogy, the “river” refers to the stream of thoughts with which we identify ourselves with. Most of the time, we are “in the river”, but when we are able to “see the river”, it means that we have created the space needed to observe our thoughts more objectively.
I was grateful to my friend for sharing her wisdom, and silently thanked the universe for sending her to me. For had she not highlighted her astute observation, I might still be drowning in my pool of self-reproach today, unable to get my head above the choking levels of self-induced guilt.
Are women hardwired for guilt?
According to Cambridge University neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen, “The female brain is predominately hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominately hard-wired for understanding and building systems.” Men are guilt-deficient, suggests a study published in The Spanish Journal of Psychology, and lack “interpersonal sensitivity,” while women suffer from destructive guilt largely imposed by society.
We often heap tremendous pressure on ourselves to fulfill all our roles to perfection – parent, daughter, sister, friend, wife, career woman, earth-mother, and the list goes on. With such unrealistic expectations, we’re setting ourselves up for failure, and with failure comes that familiar old feeling again – guilt.
Guilt is closely associated with stress, depression and anxiety, and can have implications on both our mental and physical health. A study by Hull University in the United States found that those who felt guilty about enjoying simple pleasures had fewer infection-fighting antibodies in their saliva than those with a more laissez-faire approach to life.
Are you guilty of guilt-tripping yourself?
My gut tells me that thanks to my personality type (I’m technically an ENFP but fall in the middle of the introversion/extroversion scale as an ambivert) and the fact that I identify as a Highly Sensitive Person (folks with high sensitivity experience the world differently with heightened mental and emotional responses to both environmental, and intra-personal stimuli), I’ll always struggle with some level of overwhelm. Nonetheless, awareness is the first step to managing how one approaches to the world!
The next time you catch yourself pulling the guilt trip on yourself in any of the following situations, try rewiring your perception for a change:
You cancelled on your friends
You may have hundreds of friends on your Facebook site, but the average number of close friends most people have is five. So stop trying to fit everyone in and focus on the ones who matter.
You left your kids with a babysitter and went out
If you’re exhausted and stressed out from devoting all your time to taking care of everyone else but yourself, you’ll suffer a burn-out. Instead, recognise the importance of taking care of your own needs. When you’re recharged from your “me” time, your family will benefit from being with a happier and more relaxed person.
You broke your diet.
So you slipped off the wagon once – let it go, it won’t make much of a difference. But if you let that slip turn into a guilt-driven excuse to pig out, then yes, it will.
Thanks to Candy Lim-Soliano for sharing her story with The Yoga School.