Overcome Guilt for Career Success

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You’ve worked hard to be as productive and successful as you currently are. And you’re hoping for more of the same in the future.

But something may be souring the otherwise sweet taste of achievement and satisfaction: guilt.

Guilt is a natural emotion – closely akin to shame and embarrassment – we all feel over acts we have done, or not done, in violation of some personal code we would like to believe we follow. We can sometimes even feel guilty over thoughts!

It’s normal and perhaps even helpful to feel a certain amount of guilt in situations where you’ve actually harmed another person. However, it’s unproductive and possibly even unhealthy to feel too much guilt after a misdeed, and even worse to feel totally undeserved guilt when you’ve done nothing wrong.

Unless you’re a sociopath, there’s little chance you’ll stop feeling any guilt at all. So in this piece, I’m going to concentrate on helping you solve the problem of feeling too much guilt when you shouldn’t.

Recognize That Stuff Happens

As you stay in touch with the people, organizations, and events around you, you’ll inevitably discover that we live in an imperfect world. Bad stuff happens. You can’t do anything about it. For this reason, it’s self-destructive for you to feel guilty over problems and unwanted events outside your control. Feeling guilt from those sources would be never-ending and pointless.

What’s more, feeling such guilt will weaken your self-confidence, sap your energy, impair your focus on what’s truly important, and make your days and nights miserable.

It’s much better to discount such “faux-guilty” feelings and accept guilt only when you actually deserve it.

Proportional Guilt

Since guilt is a powerful emotion that drives you to try and make amends to someone you believe you’ve harmed, feeling too much guilt is likely to distort your behavior. That’s why it’s a good idea to check-in with yourself when you notice you’re feeling guilty. Ask yourself and others you trust such questions as:

  • Did I do something wrong, or not do something right?
  • Would it have been possible, and sensible, for me to act differently?
  • Was anyone harmed by my action or inaction?
  • If so, how much harm did I actually cause, and how much came from forces beyond my control?

The goal of these questions is to try to keep your feelings of guilt to a proportional level.

Rejection of Guilt

Feeling too much guilt is such a common and difficult problem for so many people that it’s OK, as a first step, to consider rejecting guilt. Chances are, most of the guilt you reject will be undeserved, leaving the guilt that gets through your rejection process to cluster around situations where it’s more likely to be both legitimate and remediable.

For example, when you feel guilty because you actually did hurt a person’s feelings or make a mistake you can’t easily rectify, you can simply:

  • Apologize.
  • Accept the blame that’s due you.
  • Make amends as best you can.
  • Move on.

When you feel guilty over actually rejecting a person, idea, project, or other opportunity, you can simply:

  • Recognize that saying “yes” always means saying “no” to some alternative.
  • Review, evaluate, and compare the alternative you would have to give up in order to be able to say “yes” to whatever you’re rejecting.
  • Recognize and appreciate the extra value you’ll get from whatever you’re saying “yes” to.
  • If you wish, with your rejection you can offer a helpful counter-proposal you can live with.

Parental Guilt

A special case of guilt is what you feel when you’re not with your family and children at special moments, or more generally spending less time with them than you’d like.

Unfortunately, there’s no full cure for this feeling of guilt.

Even so, you can take some steps to get more comfortable with your choice to spend time away from your family and children:

  • Explain to them often, and in as much detail as you can, why you’re making the choice to be elsewhere. Such explanations may include factors like:
    • Earnings and the benefits they bring.
    • Career desires and the satisfaction you feel.
    • Personal predilections and their sources.
    • Forced choices.
  • Strive for a balance, so that you’re with your family and children for some of the highlights, rather than being entirely absent from their lives.
  • Look for opportunities to include your family and children in your other activities, such as “bring your child to work day,” presenting yourself at your child’s school on “career day,” working remotely at home from time to time, and making a fuss over the times you are together – such as weekends, vacations, or seasonal lulls.

Whatever the source of any guilt you feel – including “guilt trips” that others try to instill in you, learning to keep your feelings of guilt in line with reality will go a long way toward helping you feel better about how you run your work and your life.

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