Thursday, October 8, 2015

A Guilt Trip

Some of us guilt-trip ourselves. A lot. We feel like we could be doing better if only we worked a little harder, prioritized better, and stood up for ourselves. We think about how we're always messing stuff up and putting our feet in our mouths and never getting done all the things we meant to get done. If only we read more books and ate healthier foods and worked harder so that we had a better job so that we could spend more time with our families...

These guilt trips are an awful thing to do to ourselves. We should stop it. We're ruining ourselves, feeling guilty for things we can't control, for not being superheroes--for being normal. We aren't giving ourselves a rest, and we're probably losing sleep or ruining our health. Seriously, we should stop it, we awful people.

I think my work here is done...

Wait. It's true that we're ruining ourselves over things we can't control. Over not being or doing more than it is possible to be or do.  And we do need to stop.

You have done enough work today. You've done all you can in that situation with that person. You did something awkward in front of someone--so what? The person who saw it doesn't remember and has their own embarrassing stories.

We can stop feeling guilty.

I'm not going to say we have to: we can. We can stop carrying around that load on our shoulders. We can rest. We can tell the world we don't really care what it thinks. We can tell people that actually, this is the life that I want. I may not be perfectly happy--welcome to life! But that doesn't mean I need to rush and change. It doesn't mean something's wrong with how I'm doing things.

I can relax. Imperfection is good enough.

We have a culture that love positive and inspiring messages. "You deserve to be happy. Kick your negative thoughts in the pants." Or maybe, "It seems like there's bad news everywhere because we're focusing on what's wrong in the world. If you think about your blessings, you'll feel better about your life."

We see motivational posters like these:

It's not about how good you are: it's about deciding to be happy. The message sounds awesome. It's about not worrying about whether you're perfect, right? Focus on the positive! Yeah!

But it also subtly enforces the idea that you can change your situation using your brain. Sure, your happiness isn't about your efforts at work or elsewhere: actually, it's about your efforts to feel happy. If you're not doing well, it's because you don't have a good attitude. You're not thinking enough happy thoughts.

Before you know it, you're caught in another guilt trip about how you fail at meditating and positive thinking, how you haven't fixed your attitude and that's why your life sucks.

If you're someone struggling with mental illness, it's even worse. You're telling yourself that you can overcome the depression, the bipolar syndrome, or the PTSD if you just try hard enough. (Spoiler alert: that's not how mental illness works.*) You tell yourself, it's all just a mind game, one that you're failing. If you weren't depressed before, that attitude poster made it official.

I'm not saying these positive messages aren't okay in their rightful place. But we need to remember that a lot of how life turns how has nothing to do with our efforts. You cannot, by force of will, make yourself successful. Effort, persistence, and attitude will help, but you have to have a good measure of luck, too, and self-love and loving people around you and so many other things...

The quality of life cannot be quantified by summing up your attitude.

This might be more accurate.

There's a part of me that wants to say, "Maybe what's making life feel so hard right now is that you're feeling guilty about everything." I know it's often true for me: feeling guilty about every little thing ruins my enjoyment of everything else. But then I'd be blaming you and guilt-tripping you, and let's just not get into that.

I'll just say that you don't have to feel guilty today. You can relax and be okay with life as it is, if you want to. If you're able to lay down the burden of "Omigod I'm not doing enough," then I applaud you. And if you're not, then that's okay too.

It's going to be okay.

Don't try to be that one person who dug their own way out of the darkness. Nobody is asking you to, and it might not be possible. You don't be a superhero: it's okay to break. Help is the most awesome thing.