Punch Your Guilt in the Face
Guilt sneaks up on us all. Not in dark allies. No, it waits under the bed. Sometimes with a garrote. We lose sleep over the off chance we let someone down. Neglected that favor. Forgot that email. Left work early to take care of some errands. Took a nap in our office. How dare we.
Last week someone spotted me on campus.
“Taking a half day?” he joked.
“No,” I said and waved the form in my hand. “I’m trying to help a student with a medical problem.”
She was failing all of her classes, and wanted to withdraw. But the university wouldn’t let her without a memo signed by her professors and five other people. The student couldn’t handle the stress, so I was doing it. The dean teased me before signing the form.
“You’re costing us a lot of money,” he said.
The provost wasn’t in his office. So I left the form for his signature. Three days later, it came back to me unsigned, with a note. He chided me for putting such an imposition on him.
Or at least I think so. Sloppy handwriting.
Guilt can creep up from your personal life, too. My dad once mentioned he felt abandoned when I moved an entire state away to pursue my PhD. Left him alone to watch my schizophrenic mom slowly die.
But I can’t feel guilty about that. Choosing a better life is what led to my new family. It wasn’t a selfish decision. If I’d stayed home to care for an abusive parent, out of guilt, I wouldn’t have a daughter now.
Don’t feel guilty about doing good things for yourself, just because they might go against someone else’s interests.
You’ve probably noticed that I’m exploring a theme lately about boundaries. Step 1 is to set them. Step 2 is to communicate them. Step 3 is to stop feeling guilty about them. Here’s some ideas.
Study the lack of guilt in others.
Start paying more attention to how little some of your colleagues and bosses actually do at work. It’s a powerful antidote to your guilt. Not that you want to turn into them. But watching them puts your own imaginary shortcomings into a new perspective.
Fun facts: our dean spends chunks of his day playing smartphone games, working on his own research, and scheduling keynote speeches that inflate his bank account even further.
Our provost holds wine tastings with alumni on campus and posts selfies with local city and state officials from golf courses. He calls this fundraising. I call it golfing off. Get it? Like goofing off, but more exclusive.
Our president makes videos of himself walking around campus, staring into the horizon. Dramatic music swells in the background. He calls this marketing. I call it grandstanding. Sorry, no pun for that one.
Stop feeling guilty about other people’s fires.
Three kinds of people protect the world. Police officers. Firefighters. And nurses. I’m a firefighter. I rush into burning buildings to save people, even if they did something stupid to cause the fire.
But you can’t save every burning house. I’ve tried to get better at not answering every alarm.
Guilt plays an important role here. Don’t feel guilty because you decided to get a normal night’s sleep instead of rushing off to put out every little fire in the middle of the night. Don’t feel guilty for asking someone why they don’t know how to use a fire extinguisher.
Because they should.
Stop trying to save pyromaniacs.
My department chair is always watching a video when I tiptoe into his office with a list of things we need to get done. He says, “Great! Let’s make it happen.” He really means, “Go do it.”
He gives me permission to save his ass. His house is burning down around him, and he doesn’t even know.
Most of the time, he’s the source.
Almost none of these people you’re trying to save are doing their jobs. They’re starting fires that you’ll feel guilty about not putting out.
They’re a bunch of f*cking pyromaniacs. Don’t sacrifice yourself to save a pyromaniac. Let them torch themselves. Your bosses excel at looking busy and important. If they don’t feel guilt, we should try to minimize ours. You can work for a bad boss, or you can work for yourself and what you care about. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Keep saying no.
So you’ve followed the charcoal rule. You tell people no more often now. Great, you’re communicating and defending your boundaries. But no isn’t a one-off. You have to keep doing it.
Bosses and lazy coworkers try to wear you down. They’ll keeping asking and begging and guilt-tripping until you relent.
So you have to say no again next week. And the week after that. To the same request. And you still have to mean every syllable. This gets easier. Remember, no only has one syllable.
Check under your bed for guilt.
When you get home, check under your bed for guilt. If it’s there, punch it in the face. Kick it out. Don’t feel guilty for telling someone no. Don’t second guess your no and start convincing yourself.
We all do this. We say no. Then later, we find ourselves relaxing a little. We feel guilty. We think, “You know, maybe I could’ve helped with that project.” No, you deserve to relax. Chill.
Exhibit A: One of my colleagues wants to start a literary journal. He brings it up at every department meeting.
But you see, he doesn’t really want to start a journal.
He wants everyone else to. He wants me onboard as managing editor. You know, the person who does everything.
My colleague just wants his name at the top of the masthead. If he really wanted to start a journal, he could just do it. But he doesn’t. So I’m going to keep saying no, and punching my guilt in the face when it slouches out at night. Only a few people deserve your guilt. Save it for them.
Keep the guilt dealers at bay.
If you’re vigilant, you can spot threats to your time from miles off. You can escape them before they even see your shadow on the horizon. They won’t even ask. This applies double for guilt dealers.
Guilt dealers sell you guilt just because they can. They go door-to-door. They don’t care at all about anything except making people feel insufficient. Do everything you can to avoid them.
A guilt dealer doesn’t even really know what they want. They just know you’re not doing anything for them. Maybe they think they know what they want today, but next week it will change. They’ll make you do all the work of figuring out what they truly want, and what they need.
Pretend you’re not at home.
Here’s something I hear a lot from guilt dealers: “I stopped by your office, but you weren’t there.” Guess what? Maybe someone knocked, and I didn’t answer. Because I had three hours to grade papers or write something before picking up my kid from daycare.
Maybe I was listening to white noise to drown out the fraternity event next door.
Or maybe I chose to work at Starbucks. Which is surprisingly quieter than my office building these days.
It’s amazing how often people think they’re working, when they’re really just standing around talking. Talking is fine, but it’s not work. Okay? I’m convinced half the bosses out there schedule so many meetings because they want fake friends to kiss their ass. That’s what mine do.
Make people work for your help.
We should all be willing to help others. But we forget to set up expectations. We put all the burden on ourselves.
Screw that. I’ve started making people earn my help.
Exhibit A: A certain kind of person stops by your office more than anyone else. They don’t need anything. They just want to chat about their career goals. They ask questions but don’t listen to your answers. They spend 20 minutes telling you how great they are, and just want you to nod. They want you to make them feel like they have a future.
Make these people schedule a meeting with you if they want mentoring (or anything else). It forces them to cut the shit and ask real questions. Tell them to take notes, so they don’t come back two weeks later with the same questions. This tends to filter out the extroverted deadbeats. Basically, let’s stop giving away our help.
Remind yourself why you’re doing things your way.
Maybe you work best in a different environment, or during a different time of day. You don’t fit into the standard 40 hour week. Stop feeling guilty about it. Your guilt dealers have no idea that last week, your boss threw a birthday party for his son’s friend in the conference room on your floor. Those kids turned the hall outside your office into a fun park.
They have no idea that fraternities like to hold recruiting events on the other side of your building.
So you wind up working at Starbucks. Or home.
Embrace your system for getting things done. Communicate it. Stop feeling guilty. After all, your first boss is playing Candy Crush right now. The other one is watching concerts in his office. And the third one is at a wine tasting. All of them make double your salary. Even if you don’t quit — because you need healthcare — punch your guilt in the face, and start working for yourself. Do it on the sly. Everyone else is.
Keep a lookout for your guilt.
When you first get home, check under your bed for guilt. Check your closet. Check behind the shower curtain.
Don’t let it hide until bedtime.
We don’t see our guilt until it’s too late. It slips in, and causes us to make bad decisions. We apologize for things when we don’t have to. Or ask permission for things we could already be doing.
We waste time and energy agonizing over problems we didn’t cause, when the people who caused them sip wine and think about how amazing they are, especially compared to you.
We deny ourselves the time and resources to do what we find important, because we let guilt dealers define our priorities for us. So let’s make a deal. If you stop doing this, so will I. It’s not easy. The world’s firefighters have to leave the occasional kitten in the tree. Kittens are so cute. But kittens should learn how to climb down by themselves. Especially the pyromaniac kittens making a hundred and fifty grand a year.