Lessons from a Recovering Doormat

A reader wrote to ask me about guilt. She told me the story of how when her husband began to drink too much, she lost her desire for sex. He continued drinking heavily and she withdrew more. Then she discovered his “friendship” with another woman and demanded he end it. He refused and it eventually ended their marriage.

Now remember the sequence—he drinks too much, she withdraws because of the drinking, he cheats and blames her for him turning to another woman, static leads to divorce. And she’s guilty!

Hello! His drinking was the first thing that initiated the sequence. She took the blame because he’d complained about not having enough sex, while his escalating drinking caused her lack of interest. Now she’s divorced and struggling with mounting debt as she tries to raise her two kids alone. Guilt made her assume responsibility for debts that her ex-husband was responsible for.

As she tries to take control of her life, he continues to hurl guilt bombs at her.

Guilt is a big happiness buster. We all feel it at least sometimes. Your mom or romantic partner may be especially good at making you take responsibility for what they don’t like. But if you accept it, guilt can eat at you like rust on metal. At first, rust discolors but eventually it breaks down the surface. If it’s allowed to continue, it spreads and makes holes. Guilt does that to your happiness and self-esteem when you let others control what’s right or wrong with you or your behavior. Then you feel unworthy to receive all of life’s goodies.

Yet most guilt is unnecessary and unfair to you! Let’s put it into perspective.

There’s no need to let guilt pervade your life! Happiness can’t thrive amidst guilty feelings. In my DoorMat days, saying “I’m sorry” was more frequent than saying hello. I rarely knew what I’d done wrong but if something didn’t go right or someone didn’t like my choice or behavior, I figured it was my fault. Many of us are conditioned to feel responsible for the displeasure of others.

If we don’t live up to standards that are often too high, we beat ourselves up with guilt.

Women are “supposed to” nurture everyone and fix problems in a relationship. If your guy treats you wrong, do you believe you must deserve it? NOT! Guys are “supposed to” be providers and earn enough money for his family’s needs. Do feel it’s expected that you protect your family, know how to fix things and handle every situation well? If you don’t make enough money or you make a mistake, does guilt make you feel like a failure? NOT!

Being human, which you are, makes you imperfect. And not being able to live up to roles or making a mistake (or three) isn’t a good reason to beat yourself with guilt. Yes, just accepting responsibility for something gone badly hurts you. Feeling wrong never feels good. If you purposely hurt someone, it might be warranted for a limited time. But some of us live guilty as a lifestyle.

It’s hard to be happy if you live in a constant state of doing wrong.

Be careful. Guilt is often used to manipulate. Someone wants something and blames you for her unhappiness or his failure so you’ll do what they want. Some moms are pros at laying on the guilt to keep us jumping. But friends, co-workers and lovers also use it for their benefit. If you’re not enlightened, you may give in to soothe bad feelings as you wonder what you did wrong.

If you want to be self-empowered, and happy, be fair about whether guilt is necessary.

Feeling it often reflects that what someone else thinks is more important than your own perception. Why let her make you guilty for saying “no” because you’re busy? Why allow guilt to be dumped on you for doing something reasonable that he doesn’t like? You don’t have to accept what someone decides you should or shouldn’t do. You’re responsible for you just as others are responsible for their choices.

It’s your choice to accept guilt if you did nothing wrong or said “no” to something not right for you. Why let other people’s opinions override yours? Why punish yourself for not being perfect? Why let guilt dilute your happiness if it’s not your fault? Reframe the thought that creates guilt into a fair perspective about your role in what makes you feel guilty. For example:

• “I feel guilty not helping her.” can be “I’m sorry I couldn’t help but I have no time.”

• “I let my buddy down” can be “I can only be in one place at a time and while I wanted to be there for my buddy, I had to be there for myself.”

• “I wasn’t able to give him what he needed” can be “I can only do my best.”

• “I broke her heart” can be “There’s no easy way to break up with someone but I had to do it and wish I didn’t have to hurt her in the process but that’s life.”

In my reader’s case, she allowed her guilt about not giving into her drunken husband’s need for more sex to color her perception about everything else. She ended her email with:

“So, I guess the guilt stemmed from 2 issues really. 1) The guilt from not having the money to pay the (OUR) bills. and 2) Having made the kids fatherless (his words). I still don’t understand why if we are not married (or together) they have no daddy.”

I don’t believe that! I think the original source of guilt comes from not giving him enough sex. Then she carried it over to feeling guilty about her marriage ending, not crediting his drinking or infidelity. Mind you, I don’t know every detail. But I do know how guilt can skew our outlook and make us take on other things to be guilty about. As she said:

“1) The guilt from not having the money to pay the (OUR) bills.”

She took on bills that he should have contributed money to and now is guilty about not paying them. Hello! Guilt is a seed that sprouts into more guilt and clouds your view. My reader chose to pay the bills, I believe, out of guilt. Now she’s guilty that she can’t keep up with them. More guilt! It can stop by facing that your guilt is NOT warranted!

And “2) Having made the kids fatherless (his words). I still don’t understand why if we are not married (or together) they have no daddy.”

She doesn’t understand why he considers his kids fatherless just because they’re divorced, yet she feels guilty about it. This is all guilt by acceptance. The reader is accepting blame for what her husband claims is the reality, which it isn’t. Her kids have a father. HE has chosen to see them as fatherless. Again, letting this make you guilty is letting someone else choose your perception of what’s your fault and what’s not.

No one MAKES you feel guilty. You make yourself feel gu
It’s YOUR choice to accept the view of someone else, or trust your own instincts. And it’s YOUR choice to say NO MORE. Personally, I would get turned off if my guy came home every night sloshed. Drinking too much indicates a problem, which I bet my reader didn’t cause. So to me, the guilt should rest with him, as that’s where the problem began. To my reader, and anyone else carrying around guilt that hurts your lives—–go to the mirror and say, “NO MORE GUILT!” and then add, “I love you and will take better care of you.” And do your best to be good to yourself.

On Monday I’ll post more about how to deal with guilt. Stay tuned!

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