How guilt paralyzes us

Change is hard. Earlier this year, reporter Libby Copeland investigated the science behind why we resist change, and then we asked you to write in with your stories of being stuck. We got fascinating responses, and we are diving deep into one of those stories here. You can go back and read the first four parts, covering how our discomfort with uncertainty, our fear of loss, our habits, and our relationships can get in the way of us making a change.

Lynne emailed us a few months ago because she felt enormously conflicted. At 55, she wanted to start a new life across the country with her second husband, a move that necessitated leaving her small community, her job, and most of her five grown kids. She wanted to go, but she didn’t want to go. “Just when I think I can do this, everything in me wants to scream NO!” she wrote.

So I called her up.

Lynne’s story is complicated and intimate, and we agreed to leave off her last name so she could speak freely. It’s a story about love, and regret, and seeing things that aren’t there, and it starts five years ago, when Lynne reached a breaking point in her first marriage. She told me she’d been with her husband for almost 24 years, but for a long time “I felt like everything was just dead.” Finally, after much soul-searching, she initiated a divorce.

Lynne lives in a small town in Oklahoma, where she works as a school counselor. When she split from her husband, her kids were heartbroken, and she was filled with guilt for having hurt them. Her ex-husband didn’t seem to move on after the divorce, and then he lost his job; she worried how much of that was her fault. She didn’t regret her decision, but she felt deeply responsible for the destruction it caused. At her conservative Southern Baptist church, some people shunned her. “We’re in the Bible Belt and I’m a Christian, and if he wasn’t cheating on me or beating me up…That’s [viewed as] kind of a selfish reason to put my kids through that,” she says.

Although in the past Lynne had been a glass-half-full kind of woman, she now found herself reading into situations, assuming the worst, looking for herself to blame at the end of every problem. Lynne got remarried two years after her divorce, but her kids were taking a while to warm to her new husband; when she ran into her ex, it reopened old wounds for the whole family. She stopped going to church. Old comforts in her small town life were now fraught with peril.

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Fast forward to the present. Last winter, Lynne’s second husband got an offer to start a new job with a pay raise in an idyllic town in Wisconsin. Lynne encouraged him to take it, envisioning a fresh start for both of them. But when she returned after visiting him in Wisconsin this summer, she began to panic. In part, she was experiencing the grief of leaving most of her children and grandchildren behind, not to mention the town where she’d lived half her life.

But the other part of the equation — the sticking point in Lynne’s case — was guilt. Her guilt over the pain she’s caused her kids by divorcing their dad was driving her to need constant reassurance — “the reassurance that they loved me, that I was needed, or that I was forgiven,” she says. “I felt like if I wasn’t getting it continually, if I wasn’t in place to receive it, then my relationship with them wouldn’t continue to mend. I felt so broken, and my relationship with them was so broken for a time, everything that they could give me in the plus category I would just eat it up. And the thought of leaving that — that’s what I couldn’t comprehend.”

Discover 6 ways to banish guilt — a tip card to print and save

Discover 6 ways to banish guilt — a tip card to print and save


In a past post, Unstuck explored how overwhelming feelings of guilt can be and how to banish it. People who feel excessively guilty have a hard time allowing themselves to enjoy things. They blame themselves for minor transgressions they’d easily forgive in others. Without evidence, they search for the reasons in their own behavior why someone seems cold, or hasn’t called them back. Lynne tells a story about witnessing her ex-husband crying at church and torturing herself over it, only to find out later that those were his tears of gratitude after almost getting into an accident on the road.

On the one hand, guilt has its value. It can prompt us to apologize when we’ve transgressed and repair relationships we’ve harmed. Research has shown that anticipation of guilt can even steer people toward more ethical behavior.

“Guilt is considered a pro-social emotion because it serves a useful function, which is to preserve and maintain our relationships,” psychologist Guy Winch told me. “It operates like a snooze alarm” — reminding you, for instance, to reply to that long lost friend’s email or to call your mom on her birthday.

But guilt can also be distorting. “It becomes unusual and damaging when our guilt is excessive, unrelenting or unresolved,” says Winch, who wrote a book called, “Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts.” “Think of the snooze alarm model — if you have one of those in your head and you can’t shut it off.”

But Lynne made a choice to examine what was happening. After she got back from her summer visit to Wisconsin and started to panic about her decision to leave, she sought out a counselor to help her with her feelings. Her counselor, she says, “helped me to learn how to reframe some things and not automatically assume the worst when a situation arises.”

She says part of what relieved her guilty burden was when her eldest son, who was particularly upset with her over the divorce, had a child this past September. Something about that life event, and the way Lynne’s role shifted for him in becoming the grandmother to his child brought healing to their relationship. “He has made such a 180-degree turn,” she says. Lynne began to see that her relationship with her kids wasn’t perfect, but it was getting better, and she wasn’t to blame for every bad thing that went wrong.

“I was constantly beating myself up and taking personally everything that happened…not recognizing that it’s not always going to be about me,” she says. “When it’s not all about me then I can let go of the need to constantly have influence and constant contact.” As time passes, Lynne says, it “becomes quite apparent that they do love me and they have forgiven me and we’re OK.”

There are things yet to do. Lynne needs to finish out her work contract, tend to the birth of another grandchild, put her house on the market, and get a job lined up in Wisconsin. She hopes to be out with her husband by July. Her new town has a lovely, Norman Rockwellish feel, with an ice-skating rink in the town commons in the winter and lots of nearby festivals. She’s starting to look forward to a new life there, returning to her familiar old optimistic nature. “I’m gaining an opportunity for me and my husband to grow,” she says, “because that’s important, that’s essential for us.”

Discover 6 ways to banish guilt.

Tell us your story! Did Lynne’s tale resonate for you because you’ve also gotten stuck in certain emotions — like regret or sadness? Or have you been overwhelmed by too many options when trying to make a major decision? If you’re in the midst of making a change or recently made a change, we’d like to hear how it’s going — road bumps, detours and all.

Libby Copeland is a journalist in New York who has written for Slate, the New Republic, the Washington Post, New York magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Glamour, and more. Previously, she was a staff reporter and editor for the Washington Post for over a decade.

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