It’s the one soirée that no one wants to attend but everyone gets invited to, especially during the holidays. Here’s how to get over the guilt and get on with the goodness of the season.
Turn festive remorse into your secret weapon
THE LONG, COMPLEX SPECTRUM OF HUMAN emotions, people usually think of guilt as skewing to the negative side, maybe nestled somewhere between greed and jealousy. But, although it isn’t the most pleasant feeling in the world, it turns out that guilt has a good side.
“Guilt can be an adaptive emotion and is associated with reparative behaviours – it’s actually good to experience guilt for many reasons,” says Dr. Jessica Tracy, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and author of Take Pride: Why the Deadliest Sin Holds the Secret to Human Success.
“Guilt helps you cope with things that go wrong and allows you to think about something you did – or didn’t do – and decide whether it’s something you can change, fix or do differently next time.”
To add another tick to the plus side, a study published in Cognition & Emotion last January found that people who are prone to feeling guilty also reported that they were good at empathizing and had strong relationship skills.
Of course, there’s also a downside, and that’s when guilt slips into shame. “Shame is harder to separate from who you are as a person,” says Dr. Tracy. “While guilt is a feeling that can motivate you to do things better, shame can be crippling and lead to poor selfesteem.” For instance, let’s say you forgot to call your mom; you might feel guilty and resolve to call her first thing tomorrow, which is a healthy response. Shame, on the other hand, takes it to a whole other level. “It’s not just a sense of ‘Oh, I forgot to call my mom,’” says Dr. Tracy. “Instead, it becomes ‘I’m a bad daughter. I’m lazy, and I’m not good enough.’ It’s a much more problematic emotion.”
People who feel shame also tend to feel powerless to change it and may need the help of a professional to overcome those feelings. That said, an excess of guilt isn’t ideal either and can cause an unnecessary bur- den of stress and anxiety. Of course, there’s no other time of year when that’s more likely to happen than over the holidays.
“It’s a time of year when people – women, in particular – often put a lot of pressure on themselves,” says Dr. Nancy Hurst, a registered psychologist in Edmonton. “They sometimes take on extra duties and get caught up in trying to make everything perfect. Then they often feel guilty because they have created unrealistic expectations for themselves or are trying too hard to please others at their own expense.” The key is to not let guilt get in the way of having a good time because ’tis the season after all. Here are six things you can do to keep your holiday spirits up and your conscience guilt-free.
Start by taking a step back to put things in perspective, says Dr. Teri Sota, a clinical psychologist in Toronto. “It’s important to recognize the psychological impact of feeling guilty and to stop the cycle of rumination and self-criticism over it,” she says. Feeling badly because you had to turn down a friend’s party invite, or forgot that you’d promised to bake cookies for your son’s class party and opened the fridge at midnight only to discover you’re out of butter? Cue the guilt! But Dr. Sota says you need to address those feelings with mindfulness and selfcompassion. “It’s helpful to ask yourself, ‘Is it reasonable or appropriate for me to stress about this? Is it helpful to me or helpful to others? Have I actually done anything wrong?’” (Then send your son off with a box of sprinkled doughnuts in the morning – the kids will be every bit as ecstatic as they would be over your trademark holiday shortbreads.) 2 SHARE YOUR FEELINGS AND FIND COMPROMISE “When I work with clients, I advise them to check in on what’s going on internally and let the people involved know what they’re feeling conf licted about,” says Dr. Sota. “You have the right to say what’s happening for you emotionally, and it actually creates an opportunity for authenticity and emotional intimacy with the people you care about.” When asked to host a family dinner for the third year in a row, Dr. Sota suggests letting your family know you really want to do it but that it comes at a cost for you. And encourage them to share their feelings, too. “It’s important not to do all the emotional work for others, like assuming