When I started EMDR therapy several years ago, I was shocked to find out just how much guilt I’ve carried around with me for years over things that were completely out of my control. For the most part, I didn’t even realize that those guilty feelings were part of why I had so many anxious thoughts or negative beliefs.
As I worked through those beliefs with my therapist, I slowly began to understand how I associated certain memories with guilt and finally learned how to stop beating myself up for not only things that weren’t my fault, but for my emotional reaction to events and circumstances. One of the other benefits of confronting those beliefs was that I discovered how to finally pursue aspects of life that were priorities to me and not other people.
It took a lot of practice, and standing up for myself, my time, and my mental and physical health certainly raised a few eyebrows for people who were used to treating me like a doormat. But for the most part I’ve been able to adapt to a life where I prioritize my self above anything or anyone else — and since our society has conditioned us to believe that putting yourself first is selfish, I’ve also learned that doing so allows me to be a better wife, daughter, sister, friend, and employee.
So where do those negative beliefs come from? Past experiences and how we grow up definitely plays into it, but it’s only been over the last few years that society as a whole has begun to recognize how harshly we judge those who put themselves first and don’t always cater to others or even to their jobs or side hustles.
This first became evident in the early days of COVID-19. So many social media outlets were touting memes and videos of how to be productive, stay in shape, and tackle projects during quarantine that those people who may have been using the time for a long-needed rest were accused of being unmotivated, undedicated, or even lazy.
It wasn’t until quarantine bled from weeks to months to years that we started to realize how much we truly need to take care of our mental health and our own priorities before worrying about other peoples’ opinions or all the projects on our “to do” lists.
COVID has certainly made peoples thoughts and opinions on such things complicated — there are those who believe we should just get back to living life with no precautions, those who who feel like we should go back on lockdown, and everything in between. I wrestle with finding a happy medium between these two views almost every time I do something outside of work or home. And yes, guilt, on multiple levels, plays into those decisions too.
Though guilt does not burden me as heavily as it once did, I still find it interesting how much it is an accepted or even normal part of our daily lives.
For example, last weekend my husband and I were working in the backyard. We had a few small landscaping projects we wanted to tackle before autumn in our ongoing efforts to ready our house for sale . . . at some point in the future.
After we’d spread some mulch around our air conditioner and filled in the narrow trench left by the workers who’d installed our new solar panels and underground lines, my husband went into the garage to grab a bag of grass seed. I took the opportunity to go grab a sip of water from my bottle on the porch.
But before I could get there, I rolled my ankle on the uneven ground where grass meets sidewalk and I tumbled in an ungraceful heap to the ground. My ankle and foot began throbbing before I even rolled over to assess the damage, and I managed to scrape my knee on the concrete in the process.
Once my husband emerged from the garage to help me up, I limped into the house to clean myself up and apply some ice to my ankle. Even after concluding that I hadn’t broken anything, I still didn’t feel up to helping J finish the outdoor projects. Instead I sat on the couch with a frozen bag of peas on my foot, wallowing in guilt that my husband was out there in the heat finishing the work we should have been doing together.
Even though I was able to put some weight on my ankle and foot, it swelled up rather badly the next two days. I bought an ice pack, elevated my leg at work, and did my best to stay off of it as much as possible. This meant making quick dinners, not taking any walks, and not going to the pool.
At first I didn’t feel guilty about this. My doctor had said to rest my ankle, so rest I did. And for awhile it worked out that I was essentially chair-bound because mandatory overtime at work came into play, and I spent lots of extra hours at a desk that week.
The following weekend I planned on getting more done around the house. Before 11am on Saturday I’d done the dishes, started laundry, vacuumed, worked on a magazine pitch, and prepped the back porch for painting the following day.
But by noon my allergies were raging. My nose wouldn’t stop running, my chest was tight, I had a headache, and felt foggy-headed. I took some pills and laid down for a nap, hoping that an hour’s rest would rectify the situation. I had so much to do!
Unfortunately when I woke up I didn’t feel any better. I literally could not go more than five minutes without blowing my nose, and it didn’t take long for it to get all red and irritated. Suddenly I was forced to slow down and confine myself to the couch and my bed again — and immediately the guilt started rolling in.
I’d wanted to go to a community day even that my cousin and realtor was holding. I wanted to support her business and contribute to the local animal shelter fundraiser they were having. I needed to go to the library to return a book that was due. I wanted to head back to the pool. I wanted to paint the back porch and finish laundry and polish that magazine pitch.
Instead it was back to wallowing. In between blowing my nose and rubbing my red, itchy eyes, I wondered if I had somehow I had contracted COVID again. I thought about how I was letting my husband down by delaying our house projects for another weekend in a row. And even though my last post was about how it’s okay for writers to not write everyday, I started beating myself up for not finishing my magazine pitch. Like an anxiety attack spiraling out of control, so did my guilt.
I felt guilty for not taking my heartworm-positive dog to the park recently, about wanting to sell our starter home. I felt guilty for not helping my sister enough with her upcoming art show, for not taking advantage of the beautiful day.
Although these guilty feelings do not carry the same weight as traumas do, it made me realize just how prevalent guilt still is in our daily lives.
By Sunday I was feeling better — not 100%, but better. I pushed myself to finish laundry and write a bit, and even did an hour of overtime for work. But for the most part I laid low and took it easy. Another weekend would eventually arrive, and with it, hopefully the time and opportunity to make up for the last crappy two.
And as I sat on the couch, folding socks and sipping ginger ale, watching reruns of America’s Next Top Model on Hulu, I reminded myself again that exactly what I was doing at that moment was perfectly okay.