power in words and pictures

Good Riddance to Guilt

Good Riddance to Guilt

“Calvin : There’s no problem so awful, that you can’t add some guilt to it and make it even worse.”
― Bill Watterson, The Complete Calvin and Hobbes

The pressure is on. Just writing those words creates a little sense of panic in me, but the pressure really is on so many people right now. We are in the thick of the holiday season — Christmas is just around the corner, Hanukkah has just begun, and I’m guessing there are other seasons of celebration I’ve missed. Like the building up of steam in my pressure cooker, people’s activity levels are building as one more gift, one more event, one more stop on the holiday train of visits press in and make fitting in an extra breath difficult to manage. And like Calvin said, none of it is so awful that someone won’t help you mix a little guilt in to make it even worse.

One of the kindest gifts my mother has ever given her children is the gift of “no guilt”. When the holidays rolled around after my brother and I were both married, she assured us that if we needed to be with our spouses’ families, she would understand. Taking her up on her offer, my husband and I began the tradition of swapping holidays as fairly as we could, though I loved being in my childhood home.   I’ve written about it before, but it bears repeating over and over again — guilt is not a gift, it is a cruel act of manipulation.

There are three types of people:

  1. The people who impose guilt
  2. The people who feel guilt
  3. The people who have been wise enough to learn to escape it on both sides.

1) If you find yourself saying to other people that they really should come to your house for the holiday or serve on some committee at church because you or someone else will be disappointed, stop right there. When you try to manipulate people to do things your way, you are doing everyone a disservice. The person might come to the event or serve on the committee, and they will resent you for pushing them into a corner. Manipulation through guilt is not a treasured technique.

2) If your invitations arrive with words like, “Uncle Joe might not be here next year, you really should come,” or “You’ll be the only cousin who doesn’t show up, ” then it is less about your holiday and all about a perfect picture someone is painting. If it turns out to be Uncle Joe’s last holiday and you didn’t show up, it might be something you kick yourself in the rear-end over, but it also might be that you’ve called Uncle Joe and talked to him about important things when it wasn’t a holiday, so when he passed, you were grateful for the times you reached out to him and had real conversations.

3) The best place any of us can find ourselves is in the third category. Escaping guilt is no easy task, and it involves a lot of self-talk. We are each in a position to change, and with change can come better relationships. If you find yourself saying: You should…, I can’t believe you won’t…, or You are just the perfect person to… you are speaking words of guilt. If you hear those spoken by someone else, you can rest assured that you are being manipulated. Take a minute to recognize the true cost of guilt and choose a different ending.

It’s the holiday season. Be kind to those you love and think about the gift of letting people off the hook. We always invite our kids to holiday lunches or dinners, and we love when they accept our invitations, but we’ve made it clear that we don’t equate their love for us with their showing up every time we ask. Guilt doesn’t need to be on your menu this season.

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