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How To Deal With Guilt, According To Experts (& People Who’ve Done It)

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Guilt: It’s a concept that many women are familiar with. From skipping a workout, to forgetting a birthday, to (gasp!) leaving work on time, many can relate to the pang, like somehow, they could (and should) do better. But while some guilt is inevitable, even healthy to some extent, it can become excessive. When it begins to affect your emotional and wellbeing, it’s crucial to find ways to deal with guilt in order to own your life and find inner peace and happiness.

“When I speak to a room full of women and ask how many have felt guilty in the last 24 hours, almost all put their hands up,” says Samantha Ettus, work/life balance expert and Premier Protein Consultant. “And when I press further, the variety of items they feel guilty about spans from things they haven’t done but wanted to, like exercise or call their mom, to buying an expensive bag and/or spending too much time watching TV. What I have found is that once you allow yourself to spend time feeling guilty, the things you find to feel guilty about are endless.”

Amanda Huggins, anxiety and positive mindset coach and host of the Do The Work Podcast, adds that the majority of guilt is self-imposed. “[The] mental constructs we’ve created for ourselves often wind up creating the biggest guilt triggers in the end," she points out. "We create this structure for ourselves — that we ‘have to do it all’ or we ‘have to do it perfectly’ — and when we fall short, we can experience a tremendous, oftentimes crippling amount of guilt.”

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So, why the epidemic? For starters, today’s always-plugged-in society encourages constant work availability, leading to a work burnout crisis that's reached a record high. And now, more than ever, females are providing for their families, which often leads to a struggle in balancing their careers and personal lives. Then, of course, there’s social media, which leads to constantly comparing oneself to another's perceived success.

If these scenarios are all too familiar to you, read on. Ahead, experts share the best ways to alleviate excess guilt so you can spend more time appreciating your accomplishments (both big and small) and less time selling yourself short. Then, hear from women who’ve learned to overcome guilt in their lives; yes, you can do it, too.

Let Go Of Perfection

You might as well accept it now: No matter how hard you try, at some point, you’ll miss a workout, make a financial splurge, let the house get messy, or demonstrate less-than-peak performance at work. “When we decide perfection no longer needs to be our status quo, it frees up space for us to practice compassion with ourselves, without necessarily sacrificing our work ethic,” says Huggins. “It’s not about not showing up and doing your work, it’s about being okay with some days just not being your best...and NOT tacking on any additional guilt or blame.”

Kit Broihier, MS, RD, LD, and registered dietitian and president at NutriComm Inc. in South Portland, Maine, admits that in her line of work, the obligation to portray an ideal lifestyle comes into play. "As a Registered Dietitian, there is some expectation that he or she should be at what society deems a 'healthy weight,'" she explains. "I am an average weight RD; I’m neither super thin nor heavy. However, I still feel the pressure to 'fit the mold.' I have felt guilt when people I know look in my grocery cart and see that I’m purchasing ice cream or chocolate (and yes, sometimes they comment on it or give me a some side-eye)."

Broihier's turning point was when, after 11 years of tracking weights, caloric intake, and macros, she decided to ditch the fitness app and just listen to her body. "In all that time (and through some major life transitions), my weight only varied by 12 pounds—basically one pants size. That’s a lot of mental energy and time spent on something that sometimes daily brought on feelings of guilt and stress."

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Reframe Your Mindset

Maria Inoa, LCSW, blogger, speaker, and owner of Full Potential Counseling, suggests pausing to take a good look at yourself … literally. “Stop and look in the mirror,” she says. “Recognize that you are human, not a robot, and therefore, cannot do all the things." Secondly, “Take some time to assess what you do best and own that,” she recommends. “Accept that other women are gifted in other areas. Not everyone can bake cookies from scratch for the school's bake sale. Not everyone can or wants to spend their time after work training for a marathon. Accept that you aren't perfect (and newsflash: no one is) and focus on your strengths.” She adds that practicing positive affirmations is another simple but powerful form of self-care, and something you can do just about anywhere.

Melissa Duren Conner, a partner at the public relations firm Jennifer Bett Communications, deals with guilt from a scenario that many women face: balancing her work and home life. "Guilt is a new normal for me these days as a new working mom," she shares. "Taking care of myself and my relationships with my friends and family is really important to me but since having my daughter, I feel guilty if I spend any time outside of work away from her."

As she juggles both roles, Conner says there are some truths she always circles back to. "You can't please everyone, even yourself sometimes, and I've accepted that IT'S OKAY! I do the best I can and take it one day at a time. It's the little things I do each day that allow me to feel like I've done my best [like] keeping my group texts going to stay connected to friends. My parents and I use our Portal all the time, even if it's for 10 minutes so we can say hello. These small things have made it much easier to feel like I am 'doing it all.'"

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Enlist Help (Seriously, It’s OK)

If your guilt is about struggling to “do it all” — whether at the office or at home — there’s no shame in enlisting backup. So, when it comes to tackling your to-do list, “Delegate and outsource,” advises Inoa. “Many times women, especially high achievers, dislike asking for help and feel guilty doing so.”

She notes that something as small as delegating home tasks can decrease your stress and increase productivity. “Think about what one or two areas tend to stress you the most on your weekly to-do list,” she says. “Then see if you can hire help [or enlist the help of a partner] so that part or all of the task is outsourced." After all, "You work hard, give yourself a break in at least one area.”

Practice Prioritization

Try taking a step back to identify your priorities, then you can absolve yourself of guilt when you can’t fit any more your plate. For instance, “Prioritize your family’s calendars," suggests Ettus. "Mark the key dates as soon as you have them and protect them. When someone tries to schedule a work dinner on your sister's birthday or during your niece’s winter concert, you can keep those dates sacred.”

Same goes for other aspects of your life: In work, is your priority to get key tasks completed within a 9 to 5 timeframe at work? Are you practicing a healthy lifestyle to improve your mental and physical wellbeing? Always circle back to your priorities; if it's spending more time with your partner, it might mean leaving the office at 5 p.m., even just for a movie night; if it's taking care of your body, you may swap your bootcamp class for a light stroll during an exhausting week. The point is, let your priorities take precedence no matter what, and allow yourself to enjoy them, guilt-free.

Listen To Your Body

Healthy food and regular exercise can definitely help alleviate the anxiety that’s tied with guilt. However, these lifestyle choices should come from a place of self-care and love, not an obsession with achieving perfection. So, if you slip up once in awhile, it's crucial to cut yourself a break.

“I suggest taking a conscious reframe of your situation,” says Huggins. “Spin it to focus on what you did well that day. For example, ‘I’m proud of myself that I listened to my body and took a nap instead of pushing myself,’ or ‘I had a lot on my plate today, and I balanced as best I could.’ Ultimately, we can train ourselves to default to a positive conscious reframe instead of defaulting to the negative self-beat."