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Set Guilt Aside and Get On with Your Life: An Essay

Karen Renner, left, and Gina Barreca

Regina Barreca, professor of English. (UConn File Photo

First published on Jan. 1, 2015 by Gina Barreca in Snow White Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

I’m trying to get rid of guilt; my goal is to replace it with humility and gratitude. I’m trying especially hard to distinguish between genuine humility and its evil twin, humiliation.

Not so easy.

Humiliation is when you’re worried that others will see your inadequacies (“I’m embarrassed to be seen in my bathing suit”; “I’m horrified that if my kids are dumb or spoiled, people will think I’m a bad mother”; “I hate driving a gas-guzzler – I feel like everybody thinks I paid no attention to Earth Day”).

Humility is when you think not about how you will be judged by others, but how you can help them – or even how you can think about them (“Nobody looks at me on the beach – I can just enjoy myself with my friends and splash around”; “If my kids are clean and happy, I’m doing a great job”; “I’m giving my neighbor a lift to the hospital – he doesn’t care what year my car was made”).

The big difference is that humiliation is about yourself and humility is about realizing that you are not all that important in the grand scheme of things – except when you can make a difference.

And that can be a big relief.

I don’t clean my own house. We have, for the past 23 years, hired a professional cleaner to preserve our domestic life. Heidi is a friend as well as professional and she does a far better job than either my husband or I could ever manage. Yet for years I felt guilty about this. There are a number of reasons for my emotional response. I am not a great cleaner, even though I know how to do it.

As a teenager, I cleaned houses as a part-time job. I was cleaning somebody else’s house the afternoon my mother died, the summer I was 16. I got the phone call and felt bad about leaving the job only half-done. This was entirely self-imposed. The lady whose kitchen floor I was washing did not scowl at me in a Dickensian manner. She was sympathetic and kind. I made myself feel bad – nobody did it to me.

I felt terrible, of course, about my mother’s illness and death. Not that there was anything I could do about it – cancer teaches a fast and hard course in humility. But I was haunted by the thought that maybe I could have been a better daughter; been more attentive, less argumentative, more loving.

Actually, I was a pretty good kid. Probably because I had reasonably good parents. I began to forgive myself for being incapable of saving her when I began to forgive my mother for being incapable of saving herself. Which took, by the way, years of therapy; this wasn’t a sudden flash of insight that came from watching a daytime TV show or reading a self-help book.

Yet despite everything my parents did well, I did develop, early on in life, a taste for guilt. I apologized for rainy days or if the bus I was riding was stuck in traffic. I apologized for having a name with a lot of vowels, difficult to spell if I was ordering a gift from a catalog.

I apologized for being single, for being unhappily married, for being divorced, for being a second wife, for being a step-mother, for being happily married.

I apologized for not having my old relatives live with me (too little); I apologized for speaking to my father every day (too much).

In graduate school, I apologized for not having a “real” job; when I got a “real” job, I apologized for having one.

I couldn’t let myself win.

Why?

If I did, then I would have to accept the enormous responsibility of continuing to live up to that moment as well as the obligation of helping other folks do as well.

It sounded pretty tiring. Guilt, as exhausting as it is, appears easier than action. But it isn’t. The cost of constant, free-floating and corrosive, is enormous.

My guilt – my sense of responsibility coupled with a belief that I was somehow helpless – made me good at self-deprecation and apologies.

These did exactly nothing helpful for myself or anybody else.

My guilt did even less good since it hurt me and sucked up energy I could have used for kindness, or generosity, or hard work, which might have genuinely helped someone else.

Not that I have it all figured out. When I mess up, I still feel bad about my mistakes. I then try to admit them, rectify them quickly, and understand them as soon as possible in order not to repeat them.

It is hard and does not always work.

But it is better than guilt.

– reviewed and revised from an earlier post (and I don’t feel bad about it, either!)


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